It has been more than 22 years since Harry Caudill wrote "Night Comes to the Cumberlands," the book that laid bare the ravages of strip mining in Central Appalachia and the poverty and sickness of its people. Huge sums of federal money were poured into the region in the years that followed, but today, there is growing evidence that hunger and acute poverty remain critical problems in some areas.
At a recent hearing of the House Select Committee on Hunger, Jane Threatt, president of In Our Own Way, a private, nonprofit organization working in Central Appalachia, put it this way: "There are pockets of appalling hunger, malnutrition and despair. Here there are families who live outside the sweeping arm of economic recovery . . . . When they get up in the morning, their primary concern is how to feed their families." The burden of hunger, she said, "is falling on women and children."
Caudill, a lawyer who practiced in Whitesburg, Ky., for many years, and who taught history at the University of Kentucky before retiring last year, probably knows as much as anyone about Central Appalachia. "This country is hardly like it was 22 years ago," he said in a phone interview. Between the federal money and the coal boom that occurred during the oil crisis, "we've had whole valleys filled with big new houses." Oil companies have taken over coal companies, the industry's been mechanized and wages have gone up, but fewer people are working. Amidst the affluence, he says, "there are people around who don't have enough to eat."
He says the government food programs for women, infants and children give out nutritious foods such as cheese to tradition-bound people who simply won't eat it. "They want beans, corn bread and pork. Things they are accustomed to. You have people who are poorly nourished who drink three or four Cokes a day. A large problem is not the availability of food but the knowledge of how to use it."
He said people who work in grade school cafeterias tell him they throw away half the lunch food. "That's because the menus call for things the children aren't accustomed to."
He said many of the poor "are very immobile. There are all sorts of jobs in places like Lexington being taken by Mexicans and South Americans. People 175 miles away in the mine fields are waiting for the mines to open. There is low motivation in a lot of people. They won't go to school." He spoke of children dropping out at 12. "Some of the girls are mothers at 13."
Schools, he said, "are among the poorest in the country. We were settled by backwoodsmen and we've never taken a keen interest in education. It's hard to motivate young people to get a good education when the parents don't understand the need for it." He said the natural leadership of the region was lost to the vast outmigration of the '40s, '50s and '60s.
Caudill believes one of the most hopeful signs for Central Appalachia lies with the Japanese car manufacturers moving into Tennessee. "If we could get busy in places like East Kentucky, we could probably wind up with a complex of small factories that could manufacture parts for automobile plants in Tennessee which could revolutionize the region by giving jobs to young women and young men who've not gotten into the mines. This is an area where there is usually one breadwinner. We're in great need of a complex of industries for women to work in.
"The major health problem in this region is just plain depression. If they could go out and work it would do more for their health than anything that could be done."
Entire hollows, he said, of 30 to 40 families are on welfare and food stamps. "As their children grow up, they emulate the people they see growing up.
"We have a medical condition down here -- the Appalachian syndrome, the chronic, passive dependency syndrome, in which people just give up. They don't commit crimes or steal. They just stay home."
Caudill does not have much hope for the impoverished women of Central Appalachia. "Industry won't want to employ them if it comes here. They want them with high school diplomas, young, quick, trainable. What you're dealing with here is people who are probably not needed by the world." And he repeated the prediction he made in his second book, "Darkness at Dawn," that a bankrupt government, hit by runaway inflation, would jettison them.
"What will happen to those poorly educated, untrained people, with no man around to help them, no money, no property; what's going to become of them, nobody knows."
And, unlike when he wrote in the '60s, there's a very real question now about who cares.