The federal government today defines Appalachia as parts of West Virginia, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. It incorporates 397 counties in 13 states, covers a total of 195,000 square miles and has a current population of more than 20 million.
This region encompasses many groups, all of which have some common values. They are self-sufficient and independent people. They have survived influxes of "outlanders" seeking coal, timber, natural beauty for recreation and cheap labor.
Culturally, there are four distinctive people groups in Appalachia.
- Descendants of the original pioneers who settled in the region during the westward movement. These people tend to be landowners, politicians and business people. The characteristics of this group are self-reliant, independent, hard-working, stable and having strong ties to family.
- Hard-working coal miners, loggers and factory workers. The average worker has little education, few skills, a large family, no wealth and few choices in vocation.
- Professionals. These are individuals and their families who have moved to Appalachia due to a profession (i.e., bankers, lawyers, teachers, ministers, etc.). Members of this group are usually not readily accepted by the Appalachians.
- Returning Appalachians. This group consists of those who grew up in the mountains, moved away for employment and are now returning to Appalachia. Many of them find it difficult to readjust to the lifestyle.
Traditional Appalachian culture is a real and functioning and revealed through arts and crafts, traditional music, traditional foods, customs and a somewhat common language. It is one that has been preserved mostly by families and churches and based on subsistence agriculture and hunting—not class-structured ways of existence. There is a sense of equality that exists between the people; this is of course in sharp contrast to the inequality and elitism that exists in other areas of modern society.
Many cultural traditions have survived for generations, however, many modern day Appalachians try to distance themselves from the "hillbilly-ness" that is associated by "outlanders" to the inhabitants of this region though. Many young people try to forget the traditional ways and notions and adopt the new ways of thinking.
American film and television have done much damage to the image of the Appalachia. Because of media portrayals like the film Deliverance and television show The Beverly Hillbillies, Appalachian people are viewed as hopeless but proud, desperate but industrious, noble first generation frontier people, yet somehow ignorant and degenerate.
In general, Appalachians are very independent people and very content with the places they live. They are very close to nature and have a deeply held belief in God. They are friendly, kind and helpful to one another, taking care of the needs of others. Appalachians also have a strong sense of what is right and what ought to be. They have a deep mistrust of anyone who is new and resist change.
For the most part, the mountains have kept Appalachia isolated from the rest of the country and outside influence. The area, extremely rich in natural resources, has a very long history of exploitation. Though fabulous wealth has been generated in Appalachia, the mountaineer's share in it has been held to a minimum, and Appalachia has become synonymous with destitution and illiteracy and contains some of the poorest counties in the nation.
Many barriers exist within this culture when it comes to business support. Entrepreneurship often suffers because of geography, learning styles of entrepreneurs from this region, workforce quality, negative attitude toward success, regional insularity and general information available about capital.
The language spoken in Appalachia is unique to the region. It is thought to be a blend of Scottish flavored Elizabethan English directly related to the migration patterns of early settlers from these regions.
While religion is important in Appalachia, the reality is that better than 65 percent of the region is unchurched. Some counties are as high as 80 percent unchurched. Culture and religion are interwoven, and while mountain people believe the Bible, respect the church and welcome anyone who comes in the name of the Lord, the organized aspects of religion have not been important factors to the people of Appalachia.