Appalachian Voices Not Heard This Election

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Bill Gossett is the owner of Cobbler John's in Marietta, a part of southeast Ohio deeply divided along party lines and in the heart of the poverty driven region of Appalachia Ohio.  

"I know who I'm going to vote for," said Gossett. "I don't think anybody at this point in time is really undecided either."

Residents like retired veteran Richard Phillips, expected more attention from the candidates and don't see the choices quite as clearly. 

"And I haven't seen anything to make me think that this person or that person is the man to want to go for," said Phillips. "So, I don't follow it that close because I haven't found anything strong enough for me to believe in."

Many voters in this region say this is a problem.  

The geographic isolation and poverty of Appalachia has made it a blindspot for many politicians even though the rest of the state is a political bulls-eye. 

Candidates' Campaign Stops 

An October Obama rally at Ohio University was the first time a sitting president had spoken in Athens, or anywhere near southeast Ohio, since 1968.

Of the President's more than 20 campaign stops in the state, that’s the only one in the region, according the Associated Press (as of October 25). 

Governor Romney hasn't seen much more of Appalachia.

He's made campaign stops in nearly 40 Ohio cities and towns. 

Only five came close to southeast Ohio –-  all in communities on the outskirts of the region such as Portsmouth, Chillicothe, and Zanesville.

Gary Nelson sees what the candidates don’t: the poverty that for many here is the issue which they live every day. 

After coming back from Vietnam, Nelson was homeless for nearly a decade.

"I see a lot of vets being homeless,” said Nelson. "I see a lot of people jumping from house to house living here and living there, just to put a roof on their head to get out the cold weather and get out of the rainy weather.”

Economic Breakdown in Appalachia

The Appalachian region in Ohio covers 32 counties in the southern and eastern parts of the state, which also is the poorest economic region.

Nearly 17-percent of people in Appalachia live below the poverty level, according to a report from the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

In Ohio, overall that number is 15 percent and nationally is a little over 14 percent.

What do those numbers mean in terms of dollars to feed families? 

In Appalachia, it's about $28,000 a year, compared with more than $35,000 statewide, and nearly $40,000 nationally.

But for many, like Gary Nelson, living in poverty is not about statistics, but a personal story of hardship and endurance. 

"I was charged with stealing rotten tomatoes out of a trashcan to have something to eat," said Nelson."I was charged with theft."

Nelson says poverty is the most important issue he sees in Appalachia and he thinks the presidential candidates should address it this election cycle.

In his only visit to Southeast Ohio, President Obama didn’t mention poverty in his speech.

And in most of his Ohio campaign stops, Governor Romney recognized that many families are sacrificing to make ends meet, but did not specifically address poverty either. 

Ignorance of Poverty

Some Appalachians think that this lack of attention is part of a greater ignorance toward the widespread problems of poverty in the region.

Nelsonville resident Tiffany Shirkey, who is unemployed with a four-month old child, has lost faith in the political process as result. 

"It really doesn't matter," said Shirkey. "For the poor? It doesn't matter. It's the rich that gets heard. So, I don't vote."

Marietta City First Ward Councilman Roger Kalter says his constituents want politicians to see the people whose voices aren't getting heard. 

"Being here in the foothills of the Appalachians with a very sparse population, it is really, really difficult to get the attention of people in Washington, D.C. or even Columbus, Ohio because we have got a rural population, transportation issues, and communication issues," said Kalter. "We're working really hard to try and get attention for the area." 

A Bit of Hope 

Even if Washington politics doesn't focus on solutions to Southeast Ohio's problems, people believe some of the answers can be found in Appalachia’s blue-collar roots. 

Small business owner Matthew Mackey is one of those people. 

He has turned his life around after time in prison and thinks others in southeast Ohio can do the same without Washington’s help.

"I don't think anybody else in a free country should be able to decide whether you're going to be wealthy or poor or just comfortable," said Mackey. "I think your ability to work and your set in your mind to work should take care of everything."

Sandhya Kambhampati, Seaira Christian-Daniels and Keara Vickers reported this story in collaboration with PBS Washington Week.