The Big White Ghetto: Appalachia after the Great Society


Owsley County, Ky. – There are lots of diversions in the Big White Ghetto, the vast moribund matrix of Wonder Bread–hued Appalachian towns and villages stretching from northern Mississippi to southern New York, a slowly dissipating nebula of poverty and misery with its heart in eastern Kentucky, the last redoubt of the Scots-Irish working class that picked up where African slave labor left off, mining and cropping and sawing the raw materials for a modern American economy that would soon run out of profitable uses for the class of people who 500 years ago would have been known, without any derogation, as peasants. Thinking about the future here and its bleak prospects is not much fun at all, so instead of too much black-minded introspection you have the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky’s Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas-station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death: Life expectancies are short — the typical man here dies well over a decade earlier than does a man in Fairfax County, Va. — and they are getting shorter, women’s life expectancy having declined by nearly 1.1 percent from 1987 to 2007.

If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation.

Driving through these hills and hollows, you aren’t in the Appalachia of Elmore Leonard’s Justified or squatting with Lyndon Johnson on Tom Fletcher’s front porch in Martin County, a scene famously photographed by Walter Bennett of Time, the image that launched the so-called War on Poverty. The music isn’t “Shady Grove,” it’s Kanye West. There is still coal mining — which, at $25 an hour or more, provides one of the more desirable occupations outside of government work — but the jobs are moving west, and Harlan County, like many coal-country communities, has lost nearly half of its population over the past 30 years.

There is here a strain of fervid and sometimes apocalyptic Christianity, and visions of the Rapture must have a certain appeal for people who already have been left behind. Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one.

Appalachian places have evocative and unsentimental names denoting deep roots: Little Barren River, Coal Pit Road. The name “Cumberland” blankets Appalachian geography — the Cumberland Mountains, the Cumberland River, several Cumberland counties — in tribute to the Duke of Cumberland, who along with the Ulster Scots ancestors of the Appalachian settlers crushed the Young Pretender at the Battle of Culloden. Even church names suggest ancient grievances: Separate Baptist, with the descriptor in all-capital letters. (“Come out from among them and be ye separate” — 2 Corinthians 6:17.) I pass a church called “Welfare Baptist,” which, unfortunately, describes much of the population for miles and miles around.

Here is a link to the entire article that is 4 pages and appeared first in the National Review authored by Kevin Willamson.


  1. Excellent article. Thanks. I remember traveling through these areas in 1968. The experience is part of who I am today.

  2. Hmmm just think, without progress they could still be backwoods hillbillies just without indoor plumbing or a telephone. I don’t get it? Manufacturing went to China, that’s what these people are qualified for. Who’s to blame for that?

    • These people are good coal miners and the coal is there for them to mine. Obama attacked the economy of Appalachia as no foreign army ever could. Johnson’s programs turned a once poor but proud region into helpless dependents on the state, then Obama destroyed the only hope they had for a living wage. Who can blame them for creating a Pepsi currency to replace the coin of the realm. So ghost, who is to blame for that? Nafta did not outsource one mining job so don’t blame Clinton. This one sets on the White House lawn.

    • This is coal country and is natural resource rich. You inhibit these industries you put these people the poor house.. You don’t build a factory in the moutains and foothills.

      • Fracking and cheap natural gas killed coal. I thought you liked capitalism?

        • Bing-O!! Working in a coal mine is no way to have a life. My uncle wrote “Sixteen Tons” in recognition of that fact. The Company Store is gone, but the basic disrespect for the health and safety of the workers hasn’t.

          • Ask those that work in them or those that are UMWA workers what they would do if not in that business is not like Molly Maguires

        • Hardly..ask the Chinese or Indians or those that buy electricty from Vectren..seems I remember someone saying you could build a coal fired plant but you would not be able to operate it due to a little help from our friends..

        • Over in Hamilition County near the Broughton/Dale area the ground water has the salinity 7 TIMES that of sea water due to fracking. They’ve EFFed it up for 100,000 years.

          The people have to have their water hauled in by truck.

          Fracking…. Yeeeee hah!!

          • Natural gas does not have any salinity at all. Something may have effed up the water with salt but it was not gas. Lay off the Matt Damon Kool-Aid dude. Gas is 2,000 feet down and water is 60 feet. For fracking to mess up wells is sort of like me farting over here in Henderson and you smelling it in Evansville.

      • No, you don’t. You vacation in them, if they are left unspoiled.
        If you want to help these people, you educate them and get into hospitality and tourism.

  3. Those of us whose ancestors left that part of the world over a century ago have a lot to be grateful for. My grandparents, whose parents had moved down from the mountains, were the first generation in their lineage to be fully literate. My father and his sister were the first generation to go to college. I am the first generation to have owned shoes before I started school.
    It is good for Americans to know where they came from and how they got where they are, I think. If more people thought about it, we may all get along a little better.

  4. “Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems…”

    And yet the murder rate is not even close to the city ghetto…despite what silly TV shows show you. And they all have guns too!, what on earth could be the difference…

    • No, but the Smokies surely get their share of tourists. Great Smoky Mt. National Park is the busiest in the system.

  5. GasProfessor says:

    January 9, 2014 at 8:32 pm

    Natural gas does not have any salinity at all. Something may have effed up the water with salt but it was not gas. Lay off the Matt Damon Kool-Aid dude. Gas is 2,000 feet down and water is 60 feet. For fracking to mess up wells is sort of like me farting over here in Henderson and you smelling it in Evansville.

    Did I say anything about natural gas being the cause?
    Did I say anything about sodium chloride being part of
    natural gas?
    Did I say anything about Matt Damon?

    Do you have a reading comprehension problem Mr. Assumptive?

    FYI some salt water aquifers occur at the same depths as fracking operations and the salt water can migrate hundreds of meters upwards.

    Also some well were purposefully injected with salt water by greedy owners and oil companies in the ’80’s and ’90’s to force our more oil and the salt water has migrated to other properties.

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