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The Road to Poverty: The Making of wealth and hardship in Appalachia. (Reviews).

The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia. By Dwight B. Billings and Kathleen M. Blee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. xiv plus 434pp. $59.95/cloth $24.95/paperback).

Road to Poverty is an extremely impressive book. The authors, two sociologists-- one at the University of Kentucky and the other at the University of Pittsburgh --have tackled some very large questions utilizing evidence from what is frequently regarded as a region marginal to American history. Marshalling an impressive array of detailed materials--court, tax, census and land records--from one county located in the heart of southern Appalachia, the authors make a broad argument that, they insist, has important policy implications for today. While it is impossible to do justice to the complexity and sophistication of their argument in a brief review, it goes something like this: because Appalachia has been treated like much of the colonized third world as a place and people "without a history," the important lessons it has to teach us about the origins and persistence of poverty have been obscured.

Rejecting "culture of poverty" and "internal colonialism" theories, the authors argue that in the antebellum era, the people of southern Appalachia were very similar to rural populations in other parts of the United States--they operated small farms that were as productive as those in the North, were involved in market exchanges both locally and with the rest of the country and were even developing rural industries such as salt making and iron mining. The long descent into poverty began in the post-Civil War period, not as a result of the War, but because of three factors. The first was a land-population squeeze similar to the one that had occurred one hundred years earlier in New England and the result was similar--a large population had to out migrate or become wage laborers. This economic crisis produced a small group of local elites who allied with outside corporations in a local political system that was coercive, tending to prevent the rise of a middle class while at the same time impoverishing most of the population. Unfortunately, the "cultural strategies" of both the benefactors and the exploited groups produced by this sequence of events, led to further impoverishment. For example, poor farmers and laborers solidified their relations with kin groups and tried to keep farming on smaller and smaller plots of land. This response to inequality and poverty actually crystallized the traits of "traditionalism" and "familism" that have been assumed to be a natural part of primitive Appalachian culture.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the authors' argument is the role of politics in the creation of what seems to be intractable poverty, even today. The local state, they insist, early in the nineteenth century came to be dominated by a small group of local elites who used it for private gain and advantage. This was an important component of the propensity to feuding which emerged in the late nineteenth century. This violence, they argue, might not have been so virulent had it involved only the economic disruption of the sudden intrusion of railroad and coal companies or even the cultural strategies of family and kin solidarity developed to deal with these economic problems. Most important as a cause for the violence was the privatization of the local state; that privatization became critical when local elites used public institutions to fight with each other over the benefits of economic growth. Indeed the authors argue that it was this fragmentation of the local state--especially the court system--which caused the violence that came to be labeled as feuding. Thus, they argue, in the final chapter, that the only way to remedy such inequity is to pay closer attention to the local state, making sure that it represents all groups within the society. And making sure also that policy makers do not dismiss the cultural strategies such as family and kin solidarity as ignorant or irrelevant; in fact, say these authors, these strategies served Appalachians well when they found themselves caught in the grip of sudden economic disruption and a politically coercive system.

This book is breathtaking in its scope and sophistication of historical and sociological analysis. The authors have probed minute details of one small country and managed to relate their evidence to the most significant theories circulating today regarding the origins and persistence of poverty, wherever it occurs. It should be read and pondered by policy makers everywhere. My only quibbles concern the emphasis placed on certain aspects of the arguments. For example, Billings and Blee spend too much time attacking Appalachian stereotypes. In popular culture those stereotypes are most assuredly still very current; however, among academics there has been, in the past 10-15 years, an explosion of excellent work on the region that has all but exorcised those negative images. Those of us who labor in Appalachian studies need to move on beyond the defensive stance that so frequently dominates our writing. Secondly and more crucially, I do not think the authors have cemented their case for the relationship of feud v iolence to economic upheaval and political privatization. Indeed, in some larger sense, their argument about the origins and persistence of poverty reads like a very convincing analysis of what is happening in America today--while the economy seems good overall, it is clearly the case that certain populations are being pushed further and further into poverty. In addition, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that both local and state governments are being exploited by private interests. One can easily find conflicts among elites but unless one buys the Oliver Stone version of history, not the high levels of murder and violence that characterized some of the counties of eastern Kentucky in the late nineteenth century. I want to be clear that I believe Billings and Blee are right in their social, economic and political analysis but not completely convincing in the argument they make about the causal relationship between political breakdown and feud violence. However, this should not detract from this book's value. It is a brilliant accomplishment that will have an impact far beyond Appalachian studies.
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Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Waller, Altina
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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