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Opinion | Handling poverty in Appalachian counties focuses on treating symptoms, not solutions

Nicole's Two Cents

By Nicole Theodore
On February 28, 2014

It was a scene I wasn't quite prepared for, to say the least: dilapidated houses sat lifeless with chipped paint and broken windows, while an array of unattended, off-colored childrens' toys sank into the earth of the front lawn amid garbage.

Rusty old-fashioned cars with empty rims were scattered throughout backyards and the nearby wooded area, resembling some sort of sad car lot.

The twisting dirt roads didn't have a single power line or telephone pole in sight. "Do these people even have electricity or Internet?" I said to those in the car with me. Blurred mobile homes were set back into the woods - no one looked at home there, either. It was quite an ironic environment to be driving through as I headed up a lifeless mountain for a weekend of luxury skiing at Snowshoe Resort in West Virginia. This was over a year ago, and I still remember the vivid scenes of obvious poverty that clouded this part of the state, situated in Pocahontas County, a place apart of the infamous Appalachian Counties that have been battling poverty for what seems like a lifetime.

And unfortunately, the Appalachian counties don't stop at West Virginia; they also consume 32 counties in Southwest Ohio. The closest county is only an hour and a half from the Oxford bubble.

Some residents in nearby Vinton County don't even have a local grocery store; the nearest store with fresh produce and meat is 30 minutes away. This is nearly impossible for those who don't own cars.

Pike County has the state's highest unemployment rate and its school is considered one of the poorest. Some families have had their water turned off, forced to use jugs and local springs to get fresh water. Others sacrafice leaving the heat off during the winter to avoid high bills.

Things are so bad that teachers have expressed serious concerns over the influx of snow days that have canceled schools recently. For some students, this is an exciting day-off, and for others it is a lost meal and maybe their only nutritious one of the day.

Executive director for the Ohio Association of Foodbanks Lisa Hamler-Fugitt told IdeaStream in February that school closings meant that 800,000 Ohio children who rely on free or reduced lunches would certainly feel the absence of it.

"I have to tell you, my heart sinks when I wake up in the morning and I start to hear the huge number of school closings," Hamler-Fugitt told IdeaStream.

Poverty affects an entire family to it's core, but what it can do to children goes beyond a needed pair of shoes or school supplies: it affects them physically and cognitvely. Miami associate professor of psychology Yvette Harris has taught a capstone psychology class on poverty and children, and she voiced her concern over children who don't have proper access to daily meals and the effects it may produce.

"You and I are used to 3 meals a day," Harris said. "This isn't true for most children who live at or below the poverty level. They may be lucky to get a bowl of cereal and may or may not get dinner. If you don't eat well you're not going to have the energy to sustain yourself through an hour of academic work, let alone an 8 hour day at school."

Obviously the negative implications run deep for children in poverty, but when it even effects the way they will live for the rest of their life, that's when it becomes really hard to sit quiet.

"Food insecurity has a lasting impact on brain development," Harris said."

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wrote about the beginning life of Johnny Weethee, age 3, of rural Appalachia in West Virginia who still is struggling to even speak, another casualty of poverty.

He was born deaf, never received proper medical attention and no one noticed the issue until he was 18 months old when the non-profit Save The Children did a screening on his hearing.

Harris says children are often under enrolled in Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP), a type of Medicaid program for struggling families who provide financial assistance for children to go to the doctor, dentist, receive eye exams and other specialized medical visits.

"We know kids are extremely under enrolled even though they do have access to health insurance. We really need to do a better job of informing parents that their children may be eligible for this program," Harris said.

According to Kristof, even though Johnny has a loving and caring mom, like many other kids stuck in the hole of poverty, she deals with daily struggles while like trying to fix a broken car and living in a trailer with frozen pipes

"One reason American antipoverty efforts over the last half-century haven't been more effective is that they mostly treat symptoms, not causes. To put it another way, we don't invest nearly enough in helping children in the first few years of life as their brains are developing," Kristof said in his column.

Just like most antipsychotic medications and drugs, American's efforts to combat poverty only reach the surface, and do not extinguish the actual causes. I think if students looked beyond the picturesque environment of Miami, they would find some of these same stories.

Butler County has a poverty rate of 12.8 percent, and if you travel down College-Corner Pike past Walmart, life starts to look a little different, maybe a little more indicative of what life may be like for some Oxford residents.

Maybe we should start to think of these children and families instead of just those abroad and removed from our own situation.


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