The Post-War Situation in Appalachia: 1945-1960
In the early-20th century, the Appalachian Region was impacted by national economic and social changes, but the effects of these downturns, from the decline of progressive-era labor reforms to the Great Depression, were exacerbated in a region so reliant upon singular industrial interests. Its plights stem from out-of-state industries exploiting the region for its natural resources and frustrating the relationship between the residents and the land. From 1945 to 1960, the region is characterized by a transformation in the coal industry, massive population loss, and an overwhelming dependency on welfare. These regional problems prompted a federal response to facilitate diverse economic growth in the form of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
A Transformation in Coal Mining
In Appalachia, particularly in western-Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky, the coal industry has maintained the status of being one of the largest employers. During the mid-20th century, the coal industry was transformed on two fronts: the mechanization of the labor force and the introduction of strip-mining. Machines were able to replace the dangerous jobs of miners with technology such as automatic loading machines and conveyor belts, reducing the need for manual labor. Strip-mining, or surface-mining, involves the removal of trees, levels of dirt, and rocks, to access the coal below the surface with bulldozers and explosives. This process is highly destructive of the aesthetics environment and leads to further environmental degradation, such as runoff, water pollution, and landslides.
UNEMPLOYMENT AND WELFARE
In the postwar period, the coal industry took a dive, resulting in the reduction of mining jobs. Loss of market and mechanization led to over 60,000 miners losing their jobs in the 1950s. The unemployment rate for Appalachia was at almost double the national level, and was found to be more prominent in mining regions. The rising unemployment rates paired with the need for economic independence and better education resulted in a mass exodus of Appalachians. The Appalachian diaspora of the 20th century was one of the largest migrations in U.S. history. Between 1940 and 1970, over 3 million people left the region, largely relocating to cities in the Midwest. A majority of Appalachians were unemployed and relying on welfare in the postwar period. As a whole, Appalachia had shifted from primarily self-reliance and subsistence farming to a dependency on wage jobs. After the coal jobs had seemingly dried up, Appalachians were left with few options, either leave and hope for better job opportunities elsewhere or remain and rely on state and federal welfare programs.
Appalachia in the Media
The plight of Appalachia was not only knowledge to the region's residents. Writers from within and outside of Appalachia conveyed the perplexing and crippling economic conditions of the region. In 1960, the Saturday Evening Post, a popular weekly news magazine, published a story entitled "The Strange Case of West Virginia: Poverty Amid Splendor." Exposing the deep economic issues in the region juxtaposed with pockets of immense wealth that existed around its periphery (such as the Greenbrier Resort), the article also relied upon the "hillbilly" stereotype that had become pervasive by this time. In response, Senator Robert C. Byrd gave a speech on the floor of the Senate defending him home state while also expressing the significant need for economic redevelopment in the region. Another, more scholarly expose of Appalachia's woes, was published in 1963. Harry M. Caudill, historian, lawyer, and historian, a native of Letcher County, Kentucky, published Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. At the conclusion of his book, Caudill envisioned a federal program of aid to Appalachia based on the concept of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a program created in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The book became one of the most widely read accounts of poverty in Appalachia, reinforcing President Kennedy’s defense for bringing significant federal aid to help address the region’s needs.