Analysis of the Documentary “American Hollow”

The Appalachia. A place where children wed as early as twelve to thirteen years of age, domestic violence reigns as a dominant force in households, and everyone relies on government aid in order to survive. While these may seem like deviant traits to us (people living in southern California) these are norms for the people of the Hollow. Having lived there for 7 generations, the family in American Hollow has learned to rely on each other in order to maintain themselves from generation to generation. How they have maintained this life however would not be viewed as healthy in many others’ eyes, in fact, it would be viewed as deviant.

The Appalachians are a patriarchal society and is clearly dominated by the males. This can be seen in subtle ways such as when Iree’s husband claimed that laundry was a women’s chore and in less subtle ways such as the commonplace domestic violence that runs rampant in the Hollow. We learn that Iree’s mom was beaten so much that the stick she was beaten with even had a name. (Old Hector) With this continuous beating we can infer that nobody would do anything about the domestic violence because it did not stop. It was a norm. Using data from Cabell County, “Nearly three-fourths suffered emotional abuse, while 61.5% reported being abused physically” (WV STOP Violence against Women Project Evaluation FY01). This demonstrates just how common domestic violence is in the Appalachian society. If you are born as a woman, you have a better chance of being beaten in your life than flipping a coin and getting heads.

Samantha Canada, Iree’s granddaughter, was another victim of domestic violence in the Appalachians. Hers was a severe case, having her husband “choking [her] like usual” and in the end even trying to run her and her kids over with a truck. Everyone in the family, except maybe the small children that did not belong to Samantha, knew about this occurrence. Nothing was done to stop it. This reinforces the idea that domestic violence is a norm. An excuse that was used was that the families should not interfere with one another. However the families rely on each other constantly, asking for favors, rides, and money. Why would this be different?

The people of the Appalachians are both deviant and not deviant at the same time. It all depends on your perspective. It is no doubt that their way of life is a flashback to the rural times of America, minus the televisions and cars of course. To people like us, living in wealth, the people of the Appalachians are extremely deviant and their way of life is abnormal in our eyes. To them, they have maintained their way of life for generations so their way of life is arguable more “normal” than ours, as none of us lived in this modern way for that long of a period of time. However, the poverty is gradually being “cured” in the Appalachians. The Appalachian Development Highway System, the first highway sanctioned by congress to be created for economic development has helped spur the economy of the Appalachians. In 2009, the unemployment rate was 9.7%, just .4% higher than the 9.3% United States average. (Although it is possible there are more people in the Appalachians “not looking for work” which would skew the percentage and create a smaller number of people in the labor force.) The percent graduating from High School moved up to 76% against the 80% United States average. The college rates still lacked by 8%. The government is already doing very much for the people of the Appalachians and is having great success in improving their lives currently. (However at the time of the documentary there was little progress)

The government is also a control agent. At the time the documentary was made the school system was extremely lacking and probably still is in many ways. We can infer this because the rate of students going to college is extremely small while the graduation rate from high school is about equal. This means that the high school available is likely teaching a watered down version of what they are supposed to and the teachers do not have very high expectations for their students. The students do not have the option to go to another school district however. The school they already go to in the documentary is an hour away. It does not mention the distance of the other schools, but it can be assumed they would be around another hour away. The people in Appalachia including the children have very many chores to do and simply do not have time to make the extra hour nor would they likely afford the cost of gas. This in turn is a form of social control preventing the people from bettering their education.

Another form of government control is their subsidies and welfare they give. The government gives just enough so the people of Appalachia have enough to survive day by day. The government however does not give any way out for the people to change their current condition. The people have grown dependent on the government for survival and continue their way of life without hope of improvement and simply live their minimalistic lives as they see no other alternative. The level of aid the government gives is not truly helping the people but keeping them locked in place. The people of Appalachia would benefit from either an increase in welfare with ties to education and job skill development or no welfare at all. Either way the people would change their lives in order to survive and get the best possible life they could with their resources.

Another control agent is the families themselves. It was actually viewed as deviant to leave the Hollow. Clint’s entire family told him over and over that it was a bad idea to leave and he would just end up returning anyways. They said “a bad check always returns.” They believed he would come back and deep down Clint probably knew this himself. From our point of view, the family is showing deviant behavior by not telling their children they can do anything and supporting them. We would also see Clint as what should be the norm for everyone, after all, who wouldn’t want to leave that place? Who wouldn’t want the wonders wealth can bring in this country? It is viewed very differently in the Hollow. For many, many generations they have remained in the hollow with a few leaving every once in awhile only to come back eventually. The family has created such a mindset that it is impossible to leave which is reinforced by their history.

The family also doesn’t try to stop the other deviance we see. Getting married at 12, smoking, domestic violence, staying on welfare, etc. These are all viewed as deviant to us but they are norms for the family of the Hollow. Since the children do not know any better, and the parents were once children themselves being taught by their parents, the endless cycle of deviance continues. The society is moving away from being a model of America’s rural origins as it grows more and more dependent on the government where the original farmers were able to sustain themselves without much assistance. The health habits of the family is another area where we see deviance and the family supports it. We see excessive consumption of alcohol, smoking, and as seen on their tables quite a bit of fatty food unlikely to be prepared in a very nutritious manner. Many would see this as deviant because it is teaching the children unhealthy habits. However this is how the family survived this long so they see no reason not to support it.

This also leads to the point of nutrition. Nutrition is extremely important in the growth of a child, especially for their brains. The children are already susceptible to a bad start as their parents likely smoked/drank during the pregnancy, as they have very little education on the subject and would not know the science behind the issue. Then as the children eat, they are consuming vegetables from land that has been used for seven generations. The level of nitrogen and amount of nutrients could easily have decreased dramatically since the time of the first crop. It is doubtful that they have multivitamins to support their lack of nutrients. (Although they could use their money they use to buy cigarettes and alcohol to solve this problem and maintain their health, but that is very unlikely without some form of intervention. Even people we view as normal would not give up their vices for nutrition’s sake.) Knowing all this, it is entirely possible that the nutrition the children are getting is not sufficient and will aggregate with the other factors limiting their intelligence and ensure each generation is no more intelligent than the last. The water they drink can also cause many problems. While not every home has running water, we saw very clearly in the video that some did. However this water may not be entirely safe. With extremely low property taxes (probably none in their case) the treatment center is probably very underfunded and may not be able to filter out all chemicals. We can see an example of this right here in Riverside County. This area does not have very high property taxes and has an underfunded water treatment center and the water has been affected by industrial pollution. The city of Riverside has the second worst water quality in the nation. The county of Riverside takes fourth place for worst water. The water contains many dangerous chemicals such as cadmium and will cause health problems over time. The water in the Hollow is likely not even tested in the study and can be far worse seeing as they have even less funding. This will be very critical for people to address in order to end the current cycle of poverty and limited intelligence.

While all these factors are important reasons why the people of the Hollow are unable to improve their lives, I believe their normative belief that they cannot improve their lives is what is holding them back. Like I mentioned before, most people who live in the wealthy parts of the country are told as children that they can do anything and see others making it rich and having tons of money. They know it’s possible. They have high ambitions. This is the complete opposite of the norms and values in the documentary American Hollow. Being an economics major, I couldn’t help watching the video from an economist’s perspective at times. This allowed me to view in a critical thinking manner trying to solve their problem. Cigarettes and alcohol are expensive. The sin tax alone makes them grossly overpriced. Let’s consider part of the solution being they do not consume these goods anymore. Another solution would be to expand their moss/ginseng/blood root gathering capabilities. They could make it a game and get children to participate as they scavenge the land and use more of their free time collecting with the family instead of sitting on the porch for the long periods they do. Within a year, they should have collected enough money to support at least one person to achieve a higher education and enable him to find a high paying job in time. Assuming that person maintains their family values, he/she can support the family and help bring another person out of poverty and in time each and every member will be brought out of poverty except for maybe the elderly as it would be very difficult for them to go to school and get a new career. They are rooted in place and that is a problem that is much more costly to solve. As long as all the children can be brought out of poverty the problem will be solved in two or less generations.

Now I realize this is nearly impossible as getting the people of the Appalachians to change their habits, vices, norms, and outlook on life is very difficult indeed. I believe the old adage “give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” comes into play. The government is paying these people countless dollars to maintain their existence as it is. Instead of a lifelong money stream, it would be far more efficient to make a social investment and teach the people to care for themselves. While the government does not “owe” its citizens anything, at least according to my philosophy, it should do everything possible to increase the efficiency of the United States and sending money each month with no hope of the problem solving itself is not efficient. In the documentary, that is all that was done. However lately the government appears to be getting smarter about the situation. The creation of the first social investment highway created to generate economic growth was a great move to help the people of the Appalachians. Doing things like this will continue to benefit not just the people of the Appalachians but everyone else as they will no longer need to pay to send money to them indirectly through taxes as they will be able to take care of themselves. That brings us to the problem of changing the norm the country has on welfare. Simply sending people meager checks so they can live day by day does not work. If there are no jobs in an area and no higher education available the people will simply stay poor. If we create intelligent social investments that can increase efficiency and help the people help themselves, then there won’t be a need to continuously pour money into a cause that is not producing any results.

The people of Appalachia live a hard life. Their way of life is viewed as deviant however it can easily be argued that their way of life is not their choice. They are forced deviants. The people of Appalachia recognize they are different, calling themselves hillbillies, yet the actions they take are completely normal to them as they mostly interact with their family and have little connection to the outside world. With various control agents rooting them in their cycle of poverty, only major intervention will free them. These interventions are slowly coming into place with the aid of the government. As of now, the people of Appalachia are a living museum of the rural origins of America in many aspects, their way of life being very similar to that of their recent ancestors. Given time, their deviance will slowly dissipate as the United States becomes more and more integrated.