Don’t Give Up on Mountain Youth!

This article originally appeared in the Hazard Herald on May 11.

by Ivy Brashear

Oh, United States Census: You are such a cruel truth-revealing mirror for my home of Appalachian Kentucky. You just keep telling us folks here in the mountains the absolute and undeniable truth, whether we want to hear it or not. And quite frankly, I’m not sure any of us are willing to listen.

In data that was released by the Census Bureau on Thursday, it seems that as our school-aged population here decreases, our aging population increases – to the tune of an almost 16 percent decrease in school-aged population (those under 45) and an almost 17 percent increase in aging population (those over 60).

It’s all linked to a simple explanation, I suppose. Most young people stay in the region past their high school graduations just long enough to have one last awesome summer with their friends, then they high-tail it out of these hills as fast as their loaded-down cars can carry them.

When they leave, they rarely ever come back, and they aren’t being replaced by people still living here having more Appalachian babies, either. They are the people having babies, and they aren’t raising them here, thus the reduction in school-aged children.

The void their departure leaves is left for the ever-aging and ever large baby-boomer generation to deal with. It’s no fault of these baby-boomers, really – It’s just the facts, ma’am.

I’m troubled by this; especially since I can’t imagine a better place to raise children than right here in these mountains.

But more troubling to me than that are the comments made about this “trend” by the statistics and research director for the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, Ron Crouch.

Crouch told the Lexington Herald-Leader that he sees this Appalachian youth Diaspora as an opportunity for growth in health care employment because all those aging people will need someone to take care of them.

I suppose you could call that looking on the bright side of a very dark situation, but I think of it more as giving up on Appalachia’s youth, and that is a grievous mistake.

Sure, aging people need doctors to take care of them. And sure there will need to be more and more doctors in this region to meet patient demand. I’m not denying that or saying it shouldn’t happen.

I am, however, beyond sick and tired of people suggesting we Appalachians are just going to have to settle for our lot in life – whether it be poverty, drug abuse, poor education or a decreasing youth population – instead of trying to do something to change, improve or enhance it. Many would prefer we just continue making the same bitter lemonade out of all those lemons we’re thrown.

Instead of trying to make the doctor/non-doctor ratio 50 to one, we should instead be investing money, time, effort, skills and intelligence in making Appalachia more attractive to young people. Let’s not allow this place to be a place youth want to leave 60 days after high school; let’s make them want to stay, or at the very least, come back after college.

We Appalachians are proud people. We love this place, these mountains and these people, in spite of how backward this world tries to convince us we are.

But from the time we are old enough to start thinking about what we want to be when we grow up, our elders are telling us how we will have to leave this area to even have a chance at a good life.

Talk about a way to unintentionally indoctrinate entire generations and make them shun their homeland.

I think most people in this community who are older than 30 (because it’s rare to find anyone from 18 to 30 still living here), would be surprised to know that most young people currently living here have no appreciation whatsoever for this place.

This isn’t really an intentional thing. Mostly, I think the idea of the mountains as a dead-end to progress, youth, vitality and diversity is as natural to some Appalachian people as breathing, and I blame the decades of outsider prejudice and stereotyping we’ve had to endure for this.

Appalachian people didn’t think this area wasn’t good enough for them until know-nothing outsiders came in here and told them it wasn’t.

We have been conditioned to leave, and it’s about time that doctrine changed.

We can start to change it by not settling when the U.S. Census Bureau releases troubling data like this most recent wave of revealing statistical truth.

We can start by investing in Appalachia’s youth. Tell them it’s OK if they stay here after high school – in fact, tell them they can still be artists, doctors, authors, journalists, lawyers and politicians right here in these hills.

Let’s start building things (like the proposed Community Arts Center) that will attract younger people back to this area and make them want to stay.

Let’s support the creation of jobs geared toward young people, instead of simply counting them out of the new economy equation all together.

Let’s be good examples for our youth by showing them it is possible to live a fulfilled and successful life in this region and be happy with the decision to stay in these hills, no matter what outsiders would have us believe.

Staying in the mountains to live and work is not giving up on your future. It is investing in the creation of a brighter and better future for this region so that someday, when we – the youth of these hills – are the older generation, we will be able to tell the younger generation that staying here is not a dead end; it’s planting roots in the richest soil in America that will forever grow into trees of success which will provide shady security to all the generations that follow.

Our greatest resource in these mountains is not some million-year-old, dirty, black rock. Our greatest resource is our young people, whom we should be enticing to stay, grow and flourish in these hills.

It’s high time we started acting like we actually want a better and more prosperous future for Appalachia, and we can start by telling every single young person in this region they can be whatever they want to be and they can live in these mountains and be it.

 

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.