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How does policy impact upon isolated communities?

How does policy impact upon isolated communities?

Originally published on March 29, 2016

How does it feel to be isolated? That is the main theme in this article ( about poverty in the USA. It made me wonder if part of the issue in Boonesville, Kentucky (and the Appalachians more broadly) is a kind of poverty of imagination, reinforced by homophily. If you see yourself as isolated and powerless, and many of those around you see life the same way, then it’s unlikely you will take action to improve your situation.

However, as the article mentions, some people drive two hours to Lexington for work. And after a look at the map, there are many other choices available too within a few hours’ radius in each direction (Please note all population figures have been sourced from Wikipedia):
Huntington, West Virginia (48,113) –is moving towards high-tech industry.
Kingsport, Tennessee – (48,205 as of 2010) – rising population. Has a defence base and a chemical plant.
Johnson City, Tennessee (66,027) – rising, and has a diversified economy.
Lexington, Kentucky (318,449) – with a strong and diversified economy.
Bowling Green, Kentucky (65,234) – rising population, with a lot of manufacturing.
Nashville, Tennessee (684,410) – medical and auto industries, among others.
Knoxville, Tennessee (186,239) – rising, and has a diversified economy.

So, on the face of things, it does not necessarily appear that there is a lack of options too far away. However, I think this considers the issue from a middle-class and educated perspective. Let’s imagine the last remaining store encouraged the people currently living in Booneville to move away. But if it did, where would they choose to go? Would it be to other isolated small villages where they have kinship links? Would they move as a group?

Beyond the actual move itself, how would these people fare in the larger cities mentioned? They could not just build their own housing on land they didn't own. It also remains to be seen if there would seriously be much by way of opportunity for them, especially if they competed for work with local unemployed people. Also, while the article mentions the coal industry as an option for employment, in broad terms, that’s an industry with a limited future, if for no other reason than that the work will last for only as long as the coal does. And no doubt the coal industry is moving towards mechanisation, requiring those who work in it to undertake further education and training.

Of course, this perspective is purely economic. On a social level, maybe people take comfort from being in the same boat as those around them – even if the situation is dire. It is possible that could work in a toxic way (such as taking kids out of literacy classes) and in the process, could ensure that these children remain isolated from the broader culture. This is not without parallel in my nation of Australia: as this article ( suggests, some Tasmanians allegedly discourage their kids from getting higher education for fear of losing them to the mainland.

Also, what if these people have deep roots in Booneville and are proud of living there despite its challenges? Such feelings do not lend themselves to being measured by outsiders, but it does not mean they are unimportant or of little value. Does this isolated culture present learning opportunities for social scientists, folklorists, linguists, artists, and others?

A lady in the article was quoted as saying she’d once been to Hazard (4,456 people in 2010 and 73kms away) – but not, it appears, to any of the nearby big cities. For me, it is hard to imagine a better way to describe the cultural effects of poverty and isolation than this. It also begs the question of how the social dynamics of people work – why is it that such a woman had never been to Richmond (31,000 and 83kms away in the opposite direction)?

The article makes me wonder if Australia could have created an underdeveloped hinterland like this if it had been settled earlier. So I checked the distances involved. From Booneville, Kentucky to Booneville, Mississippi is (about) 685 kilometres. From Canberra, the same distance would lead to Newcastle, Dubbo, Mildura, Melbourne or Traralgon (see map below).

Below is my best effort at showing how those distances look overlaid on a Google Earth map showing directions between the two Boonesvilles. The circles are there to indicate where the equivalent Australian cities I mentioned above are. 

Here in south-eastern Australia, Tumbarumba (1862 people in 2016) and Crookwell (2641 people in 2016) offer a useful comparison. On the map below, Crookwell is marked in red, and Tumbarumba is near the bottom left-hand corner.

Both towns are reasonably isolated, with larger towns and cities within a 100 km radius, and few major industries beyond agriculture and forestry. In Australia, there are very few smaller communities scattered through these areas the way they seem to be in the Appalachians. This may be because Australia was settled later than the eastern USA (or it could just be that Australian pioneers saw better opportunities in other regions).

However, I cannot imagine people in Tumbarumba never having visited Tumut, or those in Crookwell never having visited Goulburn. In Australia, local government areas are much bigger, and longstanding fiscal equalization arrangements exist ( plain English, this means that resources are shared across different levels of government to try to ensure a certain level of service delivery at a local level. It appears that this happens much less in the United States.

As such, maybe Queensland is a better comparison, given that it is sometimes called the “Deep North”, and is similarly far from the Australian cities that dominate government and culture. Starting from the town of Roma in central Queensland, applying roughly the same distance of 685 kilometres reaches the towns of Nebo, St. Lawrence, Longreach, Tamworth, Armidale and Grafton. There are hills and mountains throughout these areas too, but from my understanding, they are generally not as steep or rugged as the Appalachian landscape.

What do you think? Is the American system of limited help from other levels of government a good approach for citizens, ensuring that people move to where there are more opportunities? Or do you feel that national governments have a responsibility to ensure a basic level of services for even the most isolated communities?

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