Monday, February 16, 2009

Here we go

I watched A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains, the 20/20 "investigation" a couple of times. I'm going to try to just hit on a few points that made impressions.

I'm not sure of the newsworthiness of this story. There is nothing Diane Sawyer reported on with regards to Central Appalachia that could not be said about other parts of the United States. I wonder if this was some kind of "soul searching" mission for her. She's from Kentucky, although I'm almost certain her Kentucky upbringing was a little different than the upbringing of those she highlighted in her special.

She tries to tie it in awkwardly with the economic stimulus package, but knowing that she did 2 years of research for this broadcast makes you realize that is just an attempt to make it relevant.

Sawyer does bring out some statistics based on the last census. Of the 2.2 million people living in Central Appalachia, about 1/2 a million live in poverty. It is one of the poorest regions in the nation, she states. She says men and women in this area die younger than other Americans. She also mentions that in Central Appalachia there is a documented epidemic of drug addiction, cancer, toothlessness, alcoholism, and depression.

Yeah, toothlessness. Right up there with drug addiction and cancer. In fact, she says Central Appalachia is #1 in the country for toothlessness.

Sawyer seems obsessed with teeth. She points out the tooth problems of the former drug addict, Angel, who is 30 and the mother of three little girls. Angel is on welfare and she and her boyfriend walk 8 miles one way to attend a mandated GED class every day. Angel and her family are living with her mother. Twelve people live in that house. One of Angel's daughters makes her mom pinky promise every night that she won't leave her. The little girl is so worried about her mom leaving that it is heartbreaking.

But Diane Sawyer takes the time to talk about Angel's teeth. I'm thinking teeth might be the least of Angel's concerns at the moment.

Okay. I get it. Pop is bad. Mountain Dew is of the devil. The poor Pepsi company is focused on more than the makers of Oxycontin. Come on, Diane. The problem isn't that they're drinking Mountain Dew. The problem is that they don't brush their teeth or have access to dental care. You can't tell me that city dwellers who suck down Starbucks several times a day wouldn't have the same problem if they didn't have money for veneers or teeth whitening.

She even mentions "Mountain Dew Mouth" in her promo on ABC's The View.

It just seems like a stupid thing to focus on and it seems to miss the point. Focus on the lack of sound nutrition education. Talk more about the need for good dental hygiene. Lay off the Mountain Dew. All of that seemed like a red herring to me.

Sawyer also focuses on a young high school football player, Shawn, who lives in his truck to get away from his toxic family. When I watched his story, I was really rooting for him to get out. Not to get out of Appalachia, but to get away from his family. His mother seems well meaning, but his stepfather is portrayed as an alcoholic. The stepbrother ends up having relations with his 15 year old half-sister. I think getting away from the family is a good idea.

The boy gets a college scholarship, but ends up dropping out. He leaves college because he is overwhelmed, according to Sawyer. Shawn says "I found out I couldn't pay for the college. Had to come home."

I didn't understand this. Sawyer points out that, while Shawn is getting a scholarship, he can't afford the things other kids can afford like "supplies, food, and fun." It makes me wonder why he wasn't able to get some sort of loan to help him through. When I attended college, I received grants, but the majority of my education was paid for with student loans . That's not desirable (my husband and I are, in fact, determined to help our son avoid student loans), but accruing student loans is better than the alternative of no college education.

Shawn's story seems to highlight the lack of information and the lack of support he was offered by his high school and college. I'm wondering if Shawn had some type of counselor to help him through the process. I'm wondering why he wasn't informed about his choices with regards to funding for his education.

I'm a homeschooler and a proponent of homeschooling because I think there is a major breakdown in the public education system. I'll try not to go off on this subject which is near and dear to my heart, but it doesn't surprise me that Shawn struggled with the classes at college. Many students today (whether from central Appalachia or not) have the same issues because public school does not prepare them for the work involved. The work done in today's high schools and the work expected at a college level are miles apart, in my opinion.

I'll refrain from going off on that particular tangent.

It's obvious Shawn had different expectations of school. When Sawyer says he can't afford supplies, food, and fun it just made me wonder why he is going to college. Fun was not in the curriculum at my college. The fact is I didn't have a car on campus. I walked several miles to get to a convenience store if I needed something. I didn't have an endless supply of food in my dorm room. I ate at the cafeteria that my room and board paid for. You can make it through college and sometimes you have to sacrifice. But the sacrifice is worth it. I wish Shawn had someone to tell him that. It's obvious his broken family unit wasn't going to help him with that, so I would have hoped someone at his high school or college (or even Diane Sawyer herself) could have filled the void.

Sawyer focused some on the coal mines too. She never quite conveys what living with coal mining is like. Maybe you can't tell it; you gotta live it. Still I wish she would have given these hard working guys more credit.

She talks about an 18 year old coal miner who is trying to provide for his wife and baby and makes it sound like this kid is on the road to nowhere. No doubt it's a hard life he's chosen, but would working at McDonald's or at a department store be more worthy?

She talks to a group of miners, asking them questions about what it's like to be in the mines. "How dangerous is it?" Stupid question, but typical. She asks about black lung. She says in her voice over that mine officials are just off to the side while she is speaking to the coal miners and that the miners seem to be looking at the mine officials before answering her questions. She's implying, of course, that the miners can't talk freely. Of course they can't. You're speaking to them at work. Those guys standing nearby are their bosses. Does she just say whatever she wants about ABC News?

What Sawyer doesn't say is that coal mining is a valuable industry in Central Appalachia. You can't spend time talking about how horrible it is that people in the area are selling Oxycontin for $120 a pill or how many welfare recipients there are and then turn around and bemoan the one industry in the area that consistently gives people jobs.

I have my issues with the coal industry too. My father worked for a coal company that made him a boss right before they laid all the bosses off. Good times. He was hurt in the mines too, as was my grandfather. My father-in-law lost his leg in the mines. My husband's uncle was killed in the mines. Can things be done to make the conditions better? Yes. And, I may be naive, but I truly believe that is happening. I have no problem with people or agencies staying on top of the coal industry to be sure safety is their number one concern. Coal is necessary. People who mine coal are necessary. You can't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There has been progress in recent years. The cases of black lung disease are down. I interviewed Dr. Donald Rasmussen, one of the forerunners of study in the black lung area, when I was in college. There will never be a time when black lung disease is eradicated. There will never be a time when mines are 100 percent safe to work in. It's just not going to happen.

Rather than dumping on one of the few industries to offer jobs in that area, how about mentioning that it is one of the few industries in that area? I don't recall Sawyer tapping into that. Someone (who is not credited) mentions that education is valued in the area, but the prevalent mentality is your options are working fast food or in a box store, so why not just skip college and start earning money? She does mention more about what the area needs in the taping of the View. She talks about the stimulus plan.

"You're looking at a huge stimulus package and maybe some jobs for people who don't have college educations. . ." Sawyer says. "What if some of these people could be helped with these jobs? What would it do? What if those jobs that go overseas could come back?"

Again, that's her quote from her appearance on The View and that's the highlight of the story. It didn't make it as part of the 20/20 broadcast. Then she started talking about "Mountain Dew Mouth" again. Okay.

Wouldn't it be wonderful, though, if this economic stimulus package would focus more on jobs and less on everything else? Obama is so concerned about Abraham Lincoln. How about looking to FDR and try to come up with an even Newer Deal? You have the benefit of seeing the problems with the New Deal. Use that history to make it better. Any type of hand up for that area has to offer something effective that will put people to work. Good jobs would solve a lot of problems.

One of the bright spots of the program was hearing from Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies. He had the best quote.

"When the banking industry melts down, it's like, 'oh, no, we have a structural problem.' When folks in Appalachia or the inner cities are poor, it's their fault. Why don't they pull themselves up by their boot straps?"

There was value in the report Sawyer put together, but it wasn't honoring in anyway. These people don't want the judgments of others who don't understand the life showered on them. They want what anyone wants. Opportunities and respect.

Of course, this piece was supposed to be about poverty and its effect on kids.

What is more helpful is when those raised in Appalachia choose to highlight the good, along with the struggles. Beckley, West Virginia native Morgan Spurlock did an excellent job with that for his show 30 Days. The third season's first episode was Working in a Coal Mine.

My husband and I watched that show with pride. It showed the hard work. It showed the tough choices. It even showed the lack of opportunity, but it did so in a way that made us proud to be from a West Virginia coal mining background.

Whatever else you say about those living in Appalachia, they're proud.

One of the coal miners Sawyer spoke with reminded me a lot of my father-in-law. Sawyer asks him what he hopes his kids will be one day.

"I don't know," he says. "Anything but a coal miner."

That's what my father-in-law said about his 7 children. He worked in the coal mines. He gave a lot for his job. He dropped out of school in the seventh grade and, while he understood the opportunity that coal would bring his family, he also knew he wanted something better for his kids.

All but one of his 7 children graduated from college. None of them have ever worked in the coal mines.

And every single one of them still have their own teeth.


A. said...

Mountain Dew Mouth? Seriously? Are the people of Appalachia the only ones that drink pop?

My husband mentioned they busted a meth lab by his Mom and Dad's house at work the other day. Do you know that the people my husband works with don't even know what Meth is? I guess it really is a regional thing.

Evil Twin's Wife said...

I'm surprised they don't have some sort of dental hygiene "outreach program" there. At my son's private school, a local dentist came by with his assistants and packets for each child in Kindergarten along with lessons on the importance of caring for one's teeth. It's not difficult. One could brush their teeth with a finger and baking soda (or powder) of those. I'm not sure, but it doesn't have to be expensive or even time consuming!