Friday, July 21, 2017

Part III of Washington Post series on rural disability: Disabled and Disdained

The third part of Terrence McCoy's series on rurality and disability was posted this morning to the Washington Post website, and this one focuses on the disdain that rural community members often feel and express towards their neighbors who are receiving disability benefits.  I blogged about the earlier installments of the series here.

The dateline for this story is Grundy, Virginia, population 1,021, in the southwestern part of the state, coal country, Appalachia.  McCoy features the McGlothlin family, the matriarch of which receives disability--a $500 check each month for her anxiety and depression.  Her 19-year-old son Tyler is the family member who panhandles at a busy intersection 30 miles away from their home.  He does that when the cupboards are bare, as on one of the days when McCoy follows him:
Tyler would hold a sign on the side of the road and beg for money. He would go to a town 30 miles down the road and stand at one of the region’s busiest intersections, where he prayed no one would recognize him, to plead for help from people whose lives seemed so far removed from his own. 
To Tyler, the collapse of the coal industry had left two kinds of people in these mountains. There are those who work. And there are those who don’t: the unemployed, the disabled, the addicted, and the people who, like his family, belonged to all three groups. Those who work rarely mix with those who don’t, except in brief encounters at the grocery store, at the schools or, for Tyler, along the side of the road, where he knew he was likely to encounter acts of generosity as well as outbursts of resentment.
The other person featured prominently in the story is Dennis Hess, who had previously confronted Tyler's dad, Dale, for panhandling.  (Dale is now in jail for selling drugs).  After the elder McGlothlin, who also received disability benefits after working for 30 years as a coal miner, declined Hess's offer of employment, Hess stood by McGlothlin with a sign that said, "I offered him a job.  And he refused."  Hess also posted about McGlothlin on Facebook and soon many were criticizing him, with comments such as:
  • He is a lazy bum.  Im sorry if he can stand there outside and hold a sign he could work in some capacity..I have cancer and I’m ill but I work yet. 
  • Why don’t his wife get off her butt and get a job?  
McCoy provides some context: 
Nearly two-thirds of rural Americans say it’s more common for irresponsible people to receive government help they don’t deserve than for needy people to go without assistance, compared with 48 percent of city residents, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Rural Americans are also more apt to say poverty is the result of laziness (emphasis added).
McCoy also quotes me, along with Jennifer Sherman, author of Those Who Work, Those Who Don't:  Poverty, Morality and Family in Rural America, about which I wrote extensively here.  Indeed, the sub-head for the Washington Post piece is "In rural America, some towns are divided between those who work and those who don’t."

Media treatment of work, industry, and laziness is so important in this era when liberal elites frequently focus on "privilege" and downplay the importance of work, which might be seen as synonymous with "merit."  As for me, well, I see more "merit" in work and industry  than I do in being born into the right family, the family that can afford for its children to do an unpaid externship rather than get a paid job, the family that can afford an SAT prep course but then see their child's academic success as the product of discipline and merit.  When elites poo poo the importance of work and tell whites that they don't get ahead because they work hard but rather because of the color of their skin, they are running seriously afoul of an ethos that sees work as king.

McCoy's story is a powerful one of the potent, even vitriolic clash between those who work and those who don't in rural America, and it's one in which the lack of anonymity that marks rural communities looms large.  Here are some telling quotes of Sheila McGlothlin, Tyler's mother, about her place in the community and the role of reputation:
“Once you get a name, you always got a name,” she had said the day before to a relative who also draws disability. “You can never disappear.” 
“The only way something dies on you around here is if the people dies out,” the relative had said. “I worked in the coal mines, and my nephews won’t even give me the damn time of day. Act like I’m going to steal something off them all the time because I ain’t got much.”
The piece is well worth a read in its entirety.   As usual, McCoy lets his subjects do most of the talking for themselves, using many direct quotes.  The photos, by Linda Davidson, are searing.

No comments: