A woman who escaped her drug-addled hometown in rural Kentucky said Appalachia residents face similar problems as inner-city Black communities but get much less attention.
"Some of the poor Black communities, if something happens over there — I don't know if it's a skin color thing, I don't know if it's to try to maybe shine a negative light on their communities — but they do report more on these instances," Melissa Smith told Fox News. "Whereas in our communities, I've never heard anybody on the media even utter the word 'Appalachia.'"
Smith, 26, managed to leave her family and her hometown behind four years ago to build a better life, but she fears communities like hers will continue to rot without more attention. National media outlets report daily about the rampant crime and drug use afflicting major cities across the country. But Smith feels the Appalachia region as a whole doesn't get the same level of consideration, causing them to suffer in silence as they face similar issues.
"I just pray that something could be done, some opportunities could be created, rehabs could be made more readily available and these people can get help and realize that there is a better life," Smith said. "But at the moment, it's just not talked about. Nobody talks about it."
Smith’s grandmother raised her and her siblings in a trailer park in Corbin, Kentucky. Her mother, who struggled with drug addiction, was in and out of jail for most of her childhood. Her father abandoned her family when she was little. Most of the kids she grew up with had at least one parent addicted to drugs.
"It's not uncommon that children don't have their parents in the home," she said. "They're either out running on the streets trying to get high or they're in and out of a detention facility."
While she loved many parts of her childhood, Smith said the lack of jobs, high crime and rampant drug addiction created a cycle of kids repeating their parents' mistakes. She said the opioid epidemic starting in the 1990s, paired with widespread coal mine closures, ignited a cultural and economic downward spiral in rural areas across Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and other states in the region.
Although the entire nation is facing a drug crisis, Appalachia is disproportionately impacted, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission. In 2020, overdose deaths of people ages 25 to 54 were 61% higher in the region compared to the rest of the country.
"That's kind of the norm for a lot of people that I grew up with," Smith told Fox News. "Their parents sold drugs or whatever to pay their bills and buy them school clothes. It was everyday life."
Smith said many kids she grew up with are now either on drugs, in jail or dead from an overdose and that methamphetamines, rather than opioids, have become the drug of choice ravaging her community. Most families rely on welfare checks or selling drugs to get by, she said, and with only one factory remaining in her town, the ability to work hard and improve one’s life seems impossible.
Between 2001 and 2021, employment in Appalachia only grew 1.5% compared to 12% for the rest of the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Appalachian Regional Commission designated 82 of the 423 Appalachian counties as "distressed" for the upcoming fiscal year, meaning they have a median family income less than 67% of the national average and a poverty rate 150% or greater than the U.S. average.
"They really don't have the opportunity to kind of improve or pull their self up by their bootstraps," Smith said.
"I wanted to be all these things but then I would think, ‘can I really do that?’" she continued. "It enters your mind that no, being from here and not having any money and being on welfare and food stamps, you're probably not going to go very far."
One of Smith's earliest memories was when she was in kindergarten and found her mother passed out in the bathroom.
"I just don't want my children to be exposed to that," she told Fox News. "I love my mother regardless of many of the decisions that she's made. But I just want my children to have all the opportunities that they can have."
In 2019, Smith decided she would break her own cycle and moved to Nashville. Since then, she's had two kids and got a job working for General Mills on the cookie line.
"The life that I'm living now, I never really dreamed that it was a possibility for me," Smith told Fox News. "I have a nice house, I have a nice car, have these wonderful children, and I have a wonderful fiancée."
Smith said she recently watched a YouTube video that featured interviews with Black Americans living in a poor area of California. She was shocked to hear how similar their stories were to her own.
"They were telling their stories about how they grew up," she said. "Their father wasn't present or their mom or their entire family was on drugs, crack, things like that."
"There was violence in their neighborhoods, they was on food stamps, they received welfare," Smith continued. "I was sitting there thinking, ‘this is my story.’ Not only is it my story, but the majority of people I know, it's their story as well."
Inner cities experience a poverty rate of over 20% and an unemployment rate one and a half times the metropolitan area surrounding it, according to the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City.
Struggling communities across the country, Smith said, should stand together in support of one another.
"If people will just take a step back and realize that we're all human beings," she said, they'll realize "we've been through a lot of the same things."
"If we can find that commonality between each other and respect one another, I feel like there is a path forward," Smith continued. "We just have to reach out for it."
Despite all the issues she experienced growing up in Appalachia, Smith still loves her home.
"I think people in Appalachia are truly, really good-hearted people," she told Fox News. "They would give you the shirt off their back — and they don’t have much — but what they do have, if you needed it, they would give it to you," she added.
"I don't want my community or communities like mine to feel like I'm talking down about them," Smith said. "They're not bad places. They just have bad problems."