Friday, November 13, 2015

"America's poorest white town: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs"

That is the headline for Chris McGreal's story in The Guardian yesterday, the first in a series "of dispatches from America's poorest communities."  The dateline is Beattyville, Kentucky, population 1,307, in nonmetropolitan Lee County.  Here's an excerpt:
Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids – “hillbilly heroin” to those who use them. It’s a dependency bound up with economic despair and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic collapse across much of eastern Kentucky. It’s a crisis that crosses generations. 
* * * 
Beattyville sits at the northern tip of a belt of the most enduring rural poverty in America. The belt runs from eastern Kentucky through the Mississippi delta to the Texas border with Mexico, taking in two of the other towns – one overwhelmingly African American and the other exclusively Latino – at the bottom of the low income scale.
The story quotes Dee Davis, of the Center for Rural Strategies (publisher of the Daily Yonder), who grew up in Lee County:
There’s this feeling here like people are looking down on you. Feeling like it’s OK to laugh at you, to pity you. … We’re primed to react to people we think are looking down on us. That they judge us for our clothes, judge us for our car, judge us for our income, the way we talk.
This is the poorest congressional district in the United States. I grew up delivering furniture with my dad. No one ever said they were in poverty. That’s a word that’s used to judge people. You hear them say, I may be a poor man but we live a pretty good life for poor people. People refer to themselves as poor but they won’t refer to themselves as in poverty.
I have written about similar phenomena here and here and lots of other places, too.  I find Davis's differentiation between "poor" and "poverty" in self perception very interesting, and it really resonates with my own upbringing in a nonmetropolitan persistent poverty county in Arkansas.  A lot of seriously socioeconomically disadvantaged rural people don't see themselves as living in poverty, though many will acknowledge they are poor.

And, in what is essentially a paraphrase of a favorite adage among rural sociologists, "if you've seen one rural place, you've seen one rural place," McGreal writes:
The communities share common struggles in grappling with blighted histories and uncertain futures.  
* * *  
At the same time, each of the towns is distinguished by problems not common to the rest. In Beattyville it is the drug epidemic, which has not only destroyed lives but has come to redefine a town whose fleeting embrace of prosperity a generation ago is still visible in some of its grander official buildings and homes near the heart of the town.
I look forward to others in The Guardian series.  Another recent series on small-town poverty, this one by Scott Rodd, can be found on Think Progress, here (also about Beattyville, KY), here (Jamestown, Tennessee), here (Tchula, Mississippi) and here (Campti, Louisiana).  

A current MSNBC series on the Geography of Poverty is here, but the places featured are mostly metropolitan:  Flint, MI, Baton Rouge, LA, and Brownsville, TX.  The one exception is rural Fort Yates, ND, population 184, in Sioux County, home of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.     

1 comment:

Daniel Quinley said...

Reading through The Guardian piece, I was struck by a few things. One, was the sheer amount of residents on food stamps (57%)--and what they used those food stamps for. Once residents receive their stamps, the local markets discount soft-drinks, which soon disappear from the shelves.

This to me seems to mirror the drug epidemic. In Appalachia, life is hard; and to cope, people turn to addictions. Whether is hillbilly heroin or soda; consuming the detritus of the American dream seems to be common factor among those stranded in rural poverty. We saw the same behavior in "Red Hill." And I know that some of us have seen this behavior first or second hand.

The other thing that struck me, was the Beattyville has a lower median income, in real terms, than it did during the 1980s. This seems to be indicative of the broader issue across rural America of insignificant, or non-existent economic opportunities. When the elderly are selling their drugs to buy food, there seems to be a problem.

So while the adage that when you've seen one rural town, you've seen one rural town is true in terms of understanding rural problems; I feel like economic diversification is required if the rural economy can ever pick itself up.