6 Things You Learn Living in One of the Poorest Regions of the U.S.

Some background: Last week, published “Third-World America: 5 Insane Realities Of Appalachia“, an article to which I contributed. It’s been super popular and I love how well it turned out.

One of the weirdest things about the writing world is how things take such a crazy path from idea to publication, however. In the case of this particular article, it started as a pitch I made to Cracked’s Personal Experience team about how I moved from the big city (Nashville, where I lived since I was born) to poor, rural Eastern Kentucky, and how much weirder life was in general here.

It wasn’t quite right for Cracked, though, because it was hyper-focused on the particular area of Kentucky where I live (I only really mention a few specific counties) and it was written entirely from an outsider’s perspective, while they wanted to see a mix of that and the perspective of someone who had lived there their whole life.

In between the pitch and the refocusing, I mistakenly thought they wanted me to move on to the writing phase, so I ended up writing a draft of an article that went unused. (My quotes in the article from last week are actually directly from that draft.) I asked the editors at Cracked if I could post the draft here because I thought the info was still interesting, even if it wasn’t what Cracked was looking for. They gave me the go ahead, so here it is. Consider it further reading about the weirdness that is Appalachia.

In January of 2014, I moved from a big city to a little place called Jackson County, Kentucky. You’ve probably never heard of it, and I don’t mean that in a hipster way. It’s because it’s one of the poorest counties in the United States, and most Americans only have a vague idea of what that’s really like. Well, let me tell you how…

6) It’s Really Different from Inner-City Poverty

In your town, you probably have a wrong side of the tracks. Maybe a neighborhood or two that people would call slums. Or hell, maybe there’s a whole town where the people are just broke, poorly educated, malnourished, and pretty weird, like a real life Pawnee, Indiana.

That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a massive region that encompasses counties in several states that it would be charitable to call “depressed”. The poverty there is apocalyptic, and it affects everyone, from the schools to the businesses to the government to the individuals who are most likely stuck there forever (more on that in a bit).

And while the bad part of where you live might have a drug problem, down here, everyone has a drug problem. Pain pills are the big one, probably because of all of our disabled people. Meth, of course, is the other. It’s like Justified, but with no Timothy Olyphant to clean shit up.

One thing about rural poverty that’s different from the rest of the country is that it affects mostly white folks. Jackson County and its surrounding areas are extremely white. According to the 2010 census, Jackson County is 99.17% white. A wedding cake is less pasty. That’s not to dismiss or in any way diminish the crippling, systematic poverty that people of other races see their entire lives, of course. They have to deal with that no matter where they live. 

What’s also weird is that it’s not even that new. In the south, poverty was widespread after the Civil War, yes, but that’s because most of the region built its infrastructure on free labor from slaves, which is basically cheating at having an economy. But those areas have slowly bounced back. Not Appalachia, though, and they rarely even had slaves.

Kentucky was part of the Union during the Civil War. That’s because a large portion of the population were already poor, not plantation owners who could afford slaves. They didn’t want to fight rich people’s wars (turns out we’ve been doing that for a long time now) and allied with the North instead. After the war was over, they went back to being poor. Until coal came along, that is, but we’ll get to that.

5) There’s a Lot of Everyday Stuff Missing

Where do you go if you want a quick bite to eat? What if you need something in the middle of the night? You probably answered McDonald’s or Burger King for the first one and Wal-Mart or Walgreens for the second one, right? We have none of those. The closest Wal-Mart and Walgreens stores are in a different county 40 minutes away. We do have fast food. There’s one Dairy Queen and one Subway, right next to the one traffic light in the whole county.

We also only have two grocery stores — A Save-A-Lot (a discount grocery chain) and a convenience store sized IGA. There’s no Kroger or Publix or Costco. In fact, a huge amount of Eastern Kentucky is what’s known as a food desert. Nutritious food is difficult to obtain due to its cost or scarcity. Kentucky has a lot of farmers, sure, but most of what they grow is tobacco, and that is not good eatin’. So the grocery store is it.

And god help you if you don’t have a car. There’s no mass transit of any sort, and you better believe there aren’t any sidewalks. Lexington, KY (two hours away) has a city bus, but it only runs in the city itself. Good luck finding a taxi, and Uber and Lyft’s apps both laugh in your face if you even install them on your phone here.

Some people here have trouble getting running water and electricity, too. A few people just go without electricity and just use a generator for whenever they absolutely need it. A young girl who was a friend of my sister-in-law went for years without running water because she had a heart problem and the medical bills got so high that the family had to do without. They just occasionally bought jugs of water at the store or borrowed from neighbors.

And yeah, some people still have outhouses around here. In most cases, they’re just for decoration (because people are really fond of the times when they had to take a midnight dump in a cold wooden box, I guess) but I’m reasonably sure some of them still get used occasionally. Also a real thing? Actual tar paper shacks. If you’ve got the land and a few basic supplies, you can build one yourself on the cheap.

4) The Federal Government Tried to Help and It Didn’t Work

The unemployment rate for Jackson County and the surrounding areas is a staggering 16.5%, and that doesn’t include people on disability, the long-term unemployed, or forced retirees. Even the people who do work are in trouble, because the average annual income per household is only $22,000. (Keep in mind that the average household in the U.S. also has 2.5 kids, putting that number square below the Federal Poverty Level.)

“Why hasn’t the government stepped in?” you might ask. Well, check it out: The government has stepped in. Numerous times. Cash, land grants, federal assistance programs. Nothing seems to help. The suggested reasons why are numerous. It’s a remote area. The roads are crappy and make it hard to ship goods. The money gets squandered on stupid stuff.

A big part of the reason is because of coal. Kentucky used to be one of the biggest suppliers of coal in the nation. Now, coal is becoming less popular in favor of green energy and has become more expensive than natural gas. Federal regulations against coal, while extremely well-intentioned (seriously, no one thinks coal is actually good for them), have had the unfortunate side-effect of strangling Eastern Kentucky’s primary industry.

In addition, newer forms of mining, like mountaintop removal mining (which is exactly what it sounds like), require fewer workers. There are no more dark, dusty coal mines. They just blow the tops off of mountains and pick up the coal that’s left. And, of course, you don’t need me to tell you that the health and environmental impacts on the local area are totally horrifying.

And all those coal miners who have been put out of work probably dropped out of school to take those jobs in the first place. You don’t exactly need a college degree to work in a mine. Besides, since Kentucky (and West Virginia, another coal industry heavy Appalachian state) make up some of the worst educated states in the nation, you can guess the quality of the schools. You can always work odd jobs for cash if you get laid off from the mine (something some of my in-laws do), but then you’re not building a resume or much credit, either.

3) The Local Government is More Corrupt Than Gotham’s

Here’s a scenario for you: A small, tightly-knit group of public officials get the idea to start buying votes and locking down the government in their own favor. For thirty years. Where would you think something like this would happen? Chicago, right?

Nope, that’s Clay County, Kentucky, our next door neighbors and one of the very few counties in America that’s even poorer than us. A coterie of local government officials were sent to jail in 2011 for buying votes of over one-third of the county for three decades. How the fuck does that even happen?

Simple: Who are the people going to complain to? Maybe they could go to the local sheriff, but oops, that usually doesn’t pay off. The sheriff of Whitley County, Kentucky, another neighbor, was recently found to be the center of the county’s drug trade. Imagine how much easier Walter White’s life would have been if he had his brother-in-law Hank’s job.

Meanwhile, Jackson County’s previous sheriff  was accused of stealing over $275,000. He denied the charges and later turned around and arrested the judge executive and treasurer who accused him of the theft in the first place, claiming they were the real thieves. The charges were later dropped. Who’s telling the truth? Who even gives a shit at this point? The community’s lost what little trust they had in their elected officials (and a butt-load of money). The damage is already done.

As it happens, the damage gets done a lot, because Eastern Kentucky is one of the most corrupt places in America. Now imagine you’re a business who’s thinking of expanding. What are the chances that you’ll come anywhere near Eastern Kentucky? Unless you want to include paying off local officials in your budget, that is.

2) The Public Doesn’t Really Give a Shit

Cracked has mentioned the unintentional bias that most Americans have toward people with southern accents. Now magnify that to a national scale. Most of the time, the only reason you ever even hear about Eastern Kentucky is as a joke, like that dude who was forced to eat his beard a few years ago. The national news doesn’t pay attention to this region unless they can find a story that makes us all look like idiot rednecks.

Here’s an excellent example: Jackson County’s former sheriff, the one who was accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars? Yeah, that didn’t make the news, but here’s what did: He went on national TV and declared that he wouldn’t enforce any laws that restrict the second amendment. You know, something to makes the entire region look like gun-worshipping yahoos instead of dirt poor people scrabbling for life in the face of punishingly heavy odds.

Another former sheriff was on TV once, too. He showed up on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot to talk about how he saw a sasquatch once. Yes, I am serious. They even titled the episode “Moonshine and Bigfoot”, presumably because they still had a few stereotypical Kentuckian insults left in the bottom of the barrel.

Then there’s Bill Sparkman. Bill Sparkman was a census taker who, in 2009, was found dead in Clay County, Kentucky, tied to a tree with the word “FED” scrawled on his chest in black, felt-tip marker. The media reaction was immediate, with several news agencies speculating that the murder was committed by insane hillbilly anti-government zealots in the Eastern Kentucky area. Then the police found out that Sparkman had committed suicide and staged the scene to make it look like a murder. Oops. The story was over then, but it was just more damage to the reputation of a place that can’t really get much lower.

1) Most of the People Can Never Leave

Okay, so Eastern Kentucky is a black hole. Why don’t the people just leave? There are places with way better employment prospects, better housing, better access to goods and services, better everything. It’s probably smarter to just cut your losses and leave, right?

Well, no. Moving is massively expensive, especially for the poor, who may not have the credit to rent a moving truck, much less put a down payment on a new place to live. Yeah, there are programs to help poor people move or get a house, but those programs have limited resources. They probably can’t handle an entire region.

Furthermore, you have to consider the elderly (around 30% of the population) and the disabled (11.7%, about 10% higher than the national average), people who might have trouble relocating easily. So sure, you could get a bus here to ship all the people to a place with more employment, but someone has to pay for it.

But it doesn’t really matter, because for most of the people, this is home. They’ve lived here all their lives, just like their parents and grandparents did. They have family here, all their memories are here. It’s hard to let that go, even when things are bad and regularly getting worse. What do you do when the place you love is constantly on the verge of drying up and blowing away? If you’re poor, the answer is pretty clear: Not much.


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