It Was Not To Be.
November 13, 2015 11:42 AM   Subscribe

America's Poorest White Town: Abandoned by Coal, Swallowed by Drugs. The first in a series of dispatches from America's poorest towns by the Guardian.
posted by Atreides (44 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
I was going to post this yesterday but I was too worried if it seemed like gawking at the tragedy of this town. The article is pretty good but it still feels like poverty porn to me.
posted by Kitteh at 11:50 AM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


America's Poorest White Town

there i fixed it for you.


a condition of "poorness" is not and should not be of or related amount of melanin in the subcutaneous layer.
posted by chasles at 11:55 AM on November 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


It's intriguing how "diverse" America's poorest communities are. A map of the poorest counties in America include Appalachia, the Black Belt, southwestern colonias and Native reservations. If only we were as egalitarian in our prosperity as we are in our poverty.
posted by Octaviuz at 11:55 AM on November 13, 2015 [14 favorites]


I've seen the "Obama's war on coal" billboards along the highway in places.

I wonder if there have ever been mining companies that are actually fair to their workers, good for their communities, and leave a positive legacy instead of one of poverty, health problems and environmental ruin.
posted by Foosnark at 11:56 AM on November 13, 2015 [10 favorites]


i mean they have 1700 poor residents. that's not good. detroit has 118,800 residents below the poverty level. not sure race is really worth centering the discussion.
posted by chasles at 11:57 AM on November 13, 2015


America's Poorest White Town

there i fixed it for you.


The choice of the town for this story is because the US census survey said it was the poorest white town – 98% of its 1,700 residents are white. It's not incidental to the story.
posted by maxsparber at 11:59 AM on November 13, 2015 [29 favorites]


there i fixed it for you.

Perhaps you could read the article (beyond even its title) before chipping in:
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 town at the very bottom of that census list is an outlier far to the west on an Indian reservation in Arizona.
posted by Etrigan at 12:03 PM on November 13, 2015 [36 favorites]


One of the people interviewed, herself reliant on some kind of welfare (it's weird - you basically can't get welfare around here unless you have a kid; I'm curious about what she's receiving in a much poorer part of the US) said this:

The Lord says work and if you don’t work and provide for yourself then there’s no reason why anyone else should

First off, of course, that's not the Bible I grew up with, and I grew up in a Bible-reading home. If anything, that's precisely not what the Lord says - the Lord says treat thy neighbor as thyself, and help the indigent stranger, and sit down to dinner with the sex workers and the tax collectors and the despised of society, and hand out the loaves and the fishes like there's no tomorrow - that's what the Lord says. I'm not stanning for Christianity here, because I've been an atheist for quite a long time now, but it's a strange thing to say, to attribute to the Lord what the Lord quite obviously does not say. If you're going to be a right-wing Christian, there are lots of awful things to say that aren't "God says no one has to help you if you can't help yourself".

I find myself wondering where these folks are getting their religion, and why it's such a poison pot. Not every poor Christian community has this kind of religion, and it's obviously received wisdom for her, something someone has said to her.
posted by Frowner at 12:06 PM on November 13, 2015 [68 favorites]


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 town at the very bottom of that census list is an outlier far to the west on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

This article is the first of a series of four, so I assume the other articles will be on the poorest African-American, poorest Latino, poorest Native American towns mentioned here.
posted by Bwithh at 12:14 PM on November 13, 2015


from the US census, here's how households in Beattyville, KY live:

Total households 649 +/-114 649 (X)
Less than $10,000 219 +/-77 33.7% +/-10.4
$10,000 to $14,999 107 +/-68 16.5% +/-9.1
$15,000 to $24,999 89 +/-39 13.7% +/-5.6
$25,000 to $34,999 74 +/-50 11.4% +/-7.5
$35,000 to $49,999 78 +/-42 12.0% +/-6.2
$50,000 to $74,999 37 +/-26 5.7% +/-3.9
$75,000 to $99,999 10 +/-10 1.5% +/-1.5
$100,000 to $149,999 16 +/-13 2.5% +/-2.3
$150,000 to $199,999 11 +/-9 1.7% +/-1.4
$200,000 or more 8 +/-13 1.2% +/-1.9
Median household income (dollars) 14,871 +/-5,503 (X) (X)
Mean household income (dollars) 32,228 +/-11,168 (X) (X)


PERCENTAGE OF FAMILIES AND PEOPLE WHOSE INCOME IN THE PAST 12 MONTHS IS BELOW THE POVERTY LEVEL
All families (X) (X) 52.6% +/-13.6
With related children under 18 years (X) (X) 72.9% +/-15.6
With related children under 5 years only (X) (X) 76.7% +/-44.9
Married couple families (X) (X) 29.1% +/-23.9
With related children under 18 years (X) (X) 51.6% +/-34.7
With related children under 5 years only (X) (X) - **
Families with female householder, no husband present (X) (X) 83.5% +/-12.9
With related children under 18 years (X) (X) 88.5% +/-13.3
With related children under 5 years only (X) (X) 76.7% +/-44.9

All people (X) (X) 54.3% +/-10.9
Under 18 years (X) (X) 66.8% +/-21.2
Related children under 18 years (X) (X) 66.8% +/-21.2
Related children under 5 years (X) (X) 76.9% +/-20.7
Related children 5 to 17 years (X) (X) 62.5% +/-25.7
18 years and over (X) (X) 49.3% +/-8.5
18 to 64 years (X) (X) 51.4% +/-9.2
65 years and over (X) (X) 34.4% +/-15.5
People in families (X) (X) 53.3% +/-14.8
Unrelated individuals 15 years and over (X) (X) 57.0% +/-12.7
posted by ennui.bz at 12:15 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


You don't even have to stick to the New Testament; the OT also told you to leave the corners of your field un-harvested so those without the means to grow crops could glean it. And had the Year of Jubilee.

Nobody seems to grasp the differences between capitalism, freedom and Christianity at all anymore.
posted by emjaybee at 12:16 PM on November 13, 2015 [30 favorites]


I've seen the "Obama's war on coal"

Those sneaky liberals! It's not enough to wage war on Christmas, now they want to ban coal in the bad childrens' stockings!
posted by telstar at 12:21 PM on November 13, 2015 [5 favorites]


Poverty porn is America's next great export.
posted by newdaddy at 12:22 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Nobody seems to grasp the differences between capitalism, freedom and Christianity at all anymore.


This is not a bug, but a designed feature for its installers.
posted by lalochezia at 12:26 PM on November 13, 2015 [10 favorites]


We should have a war on coal. It's just about the worst possible fuel source there is: highest carbon burden, acid rain and, in case that's not enough, heavy metal and radioactive fallout as well.

Doesn't mean the people who produce it should suffer from the chages, but we'll all be much better off when the last coal plat shuts down.
posted by bonehead at 12:34 PM on November 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


Poverty porn is America's next great export.

I think there's a difference between poverty porn and a pretty thorough review of poverty's causes and effects, but YMMV.
posted by Etrigan at 12:44 PM on November 13, 2015 [6 favorites]


Those people were getting screwed by the coal companies for generations and yet they blame Obama. The GOP may be a little confused with their presidential candidates right now but they've got their messaging down pat.
posted by tommasz at 12:57 PM on November 13, 2015 [14 favorites]


Perhaps you could read the article

i did. and that's what upset me. the poverty of the people there (or anywhere) and the reasons for it are interesting. not the race of the people there.

It's not incidental to the story

yes. yes it is. race is incidental to any store except where race is the reason the thing happened. really. it really is. desparate poverty is a terrible wretch curse for humans that should be easily wiped out and yet it isn't for a variety of reasons. none of the causation for the poverty or potential solutions relate to race.


they are't poor because they are white. hence immaterial.
posted by chasles at 12:59 PM on November 13, 2015


The Lord says work and if you don’t work and provide for yourself then there’s no reason why anyone else should

First off, of course, that's not the Bible I grew up with, and I grew up in a Bible-reading home.


No, she means the feudal lord, in his manor condo.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:59 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


Yes, that was exactly the impression I had as well -- it's a sentiment more inherent to feudalism than to Christianity. (Admittedly the two existed in parallel for a long time, causing each to take on elements of the other.)
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:06 PM on November 13, 2015


they are't poor because they are white. hence immaterial.

Race and class and socioeconomic standing are intertwined everywhere. The next three towns they're going to discuss appear to be predominantly African-American, Latino, and Native American. The root causes and effects of poverty in those towns are most likely going to be different, and it is instructive to look at the varying reasons and how race differentiates and/or unites these communities.
posted by Etrigan at 1:12 PM on November 13, 2015 [34 favorites]


I think there's a difference between poverty porn and a pretty thorough review of poverty's causes and effects, but YMMV.

Yes I agree, this article is well-written and not pandering to readers. I wasn't meaning to accuse the reporters of gawking at the Poors.

But in general, every time I look at the internet recently, I feel like I see things that would clearly fall into this category. And surely there are lots of "reality" television, and scripted television too, to which this label applies.
posted by newdaddy at 1:22 PM on November 13, 2015


I have the feeling that a poor all-white community in America is probably more backwards, in terms of education, politics, religion, social progressiveness, etc. than a more diverse community or a Black, Latino, or Native American community.

They are people who are where they are at least partly because of "tradition." They might have been exploited by their capitalist overlords rather than by systematic racial oppression -- but they don't struggle for a better place in the world, they just endure, and they are proud of being people who endure. So they vote by tradition, and continue to endure... until they can't.

I'm not saying that on an individual basis, they deserve their suffering. But I do think that white poverty tends to be different in some ways.
posted by Foosnark at 1:33 PM on November 13, 2015


Frowner: First off, of course, that's not the Bible I grew up with, and I grew up in a Bible-reading home. ... I find myself wondering where these folks are getting their religion, and why it's such a poison pot. Not every poor Christian community has this kind of religion, and it's obviously received wisdom for her, something someone has said to her.

She said "the Lord," but that's common in Evangelical-speak as synonymous with anything in the Bible. In this case, she's re-casting St. Paul in the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, where we get the verse famously rendered as "He who does not work, neither shall he eat."

For sure there's some interpretive nuance behind this verse, but the lady wasn't far off base in her intuition, and it's definitely in the same Bible you grew up with.
posted by resurrexit at 1:34 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


In my bible it's rendered as, "Everyone fights; no one quits."
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 1:40 PM on November 13, 2015


they are't poor because they are white. hence immaterial.

They're poor despite being white. Poverty tends to happen to different ethnicities differently,a and for different reasons. This is a group that is privileged because of skin color, but that privilege hasn't extended to financial privilege. That's interesting, and worth exploring.

And it's addressed in the article:

Over time, the focus of that effort shifted to inner-city poverty and many of the programmes Johnson launched came to be seen as aimed at minorities, even though to this day white people make up the largest number of beneficiaries.

...

Davis beat back CBS but said the planned programme reflected a sense that white people living in poorer communities were blamed for their condition.

...

This is routinely, and sometimes sneeringly, characterised by Democrats in other parts of America as poor white people voting against their own interests. It’s a view that exasperates Davis.


I don't know why you've decided that this will be the thrust of your discussion, but it is orthogonal to the actual article, where the subject of whiteness is important.
posted by maxsparber at 1:47 PM on November 13, 2015 [8 favorites]


Funny thing is that when there aren't any minorities for the authorities to abuse, white privilege doesn't really exist in day to day life. The shit that is aimed at the dark skinned people ends up being turned on the poor whites. Instead of harassing people for driving while black, the cops harass people for driving old beaters or walking or whatever other excuse they can come up with. The only time the privilege comes into play is when some unlucky minority happens to be passing through.

(No, it's not actually funny, more like queer in the old sense of the word)
posted by wierdo at 2:02 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Shit rolls downhill and it has to land on someone.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 2:04 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Frowner: The Lord says work and if you don’t work and provide for yourself then there’s no reason why anyone else should

First off, of course, that's not the Bible I grew up with...

Oh, just turn to the Newt Testament, it's right there!
posted by wenestvedt at 2:38 PM on November 13, 2015


Hostility to the US’s first black president runs deep. In an editorial, Beattyville’s largest circulation newspaper, Three Forks Tradition, described Obama as “trying to destroy the United States as we know it”. It accused him of waging war on “Anglo-Saxon males, who work for a living, believe in God and the right to keep and bear arms” and called the president and his then attorney general, Eric Holder, “race baiters with blood on their hands”.

And then there's this:

The War on Poverty lives on through federal grants. Food stamps, employment programmes and disability allowance have cushioned many people from the harshest effects of the retreat of jobs from the region. Some families still struggle to put enough food on the table but their children are fed – if not well in the sense of healthily – at school.

Let's see here... yep, that county voted straight republican in the last election.

You have to be careful, it's easy to paint a picture like this with a broad brush. Keep in mind Beatyville has a population of only 1,700. We have friends who hail from a different small town near that part of Kentucky, yet a sizable part of their family ended up professionals with college degrees, and they're pretty liberal when it comes to politics.
posted by SteveInMaine at 2:43 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


One of the article's interviewees says that "I don't think rural America has a future." That might be unduly pessimistic, but sometimes I wonder how many of these rural American towns will die out completely in the next fifty years or so. The small-town and rural Great Plains are depopulating, too.

I read this article and reflected on the post on gentrification - it may not be the kids who flee these towns moving to Portland, but some of their grandkids, I am sure. The kids grow up and move to Louisville or Nashville or or another small city or suburb in the area, and then those of their grandkids who have gotten lucrative jobs move to Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco. I think gentrification is partly driven by the fact that there is very little way to make a living in small towns anymore. People are moving to where they can make a living, and, yes, enjoy amenities (and for women and LGBT folks, freedom and safety). You can't blame them.

I wonder what a universal basic income could do to revive the fortunes of small towns? Beattyville may be too far gone, but there might be other places where people supported by a UBI could, for instance, create art and sell it via the Internet, or have a hobby farm.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 2:53 PM on November 13, 2015 [7 favorites]


I really want to comment on this, but I just don't know where to start. I grew up a couple of miles across the county line from Lee County in Wolfe County. I know Beattyville well, the article is accurate, and I've had long discussions about all these issues with my family and friends.

Eastern Kentucky has never had a vibrant economy since the area was settled. There was never enough flat land for any significant amount of agriculture, natural resources such as timber and coal were owned and exploited from the beginning by outside interests, and what little retail economy was there was destroyed by the chain store culture. Populations have usually been too small to provide enough of a labor base for other industries, but in the cases where it did happen it was usually a single industry that devastated the county when it was moved offshore.

The stuff in the article is terrible, but it's a symptom, not a cause. Why is Eastern Kentucky so poor? Because this is what happens when the invisible hand turns on you and flips you the bird.
posted by Mcable at 3:03 PM on November 13, 2015 [18 favorites]


The kids grow up and move to Louisville or Nashville or or another small city or suburb in the area, and then those of their grandkids who have gotten lucrative jobs move to Portland, Seattle, or San Francisco.

Yep. Like I said, I grew up in Wolfe County, moved to Louisville, my daughter is graduating from college this spring and is sending resumes to the West Coast.
posted by Mcable at 3:34 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


You have to be careful, it's easy to paint a picture like this with a broad brush.
Yes. local politics in Kentucky are weird, many counties in this area are 95% one party or the other. it's a relic of Civil-war era politics, and my experience is that locally at least, party affiliation is not connected as closely to ideology as you might expect. Remember Kim Davis? She was a Democrat.
posted by Mcable at 3:39 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also the "didn't vote in their own interest" thing is directly addressed in the article.

This is routinely, and sometimes sneeringly, characterised by Democrats in other parts of America as poor white people voting against their own interests. It’s a view that exasperates Davis.

“They say, why aren’t these people voting their self-interest? People always vote their self-interest if they can see it. If they believe the government doesn’t work, if they believe that the Democrats don’t really give a shit about people like them, don’t want to be in the same room with them, they want their vote but don’t want to hang out with them, then as they see it they’re voting their self-interest,” he said.


One of the themes running throughout the article is pride and tradition. This is a language that Republicans speak well. This is a language that Democrats do not speak and, frequently, comes off as "Oh, you poor helpless little lambs, let me, the city coastal dweller, tell you idiot rubes exactly what you're doing wrong." We can even see it here in this thread, where MetaTalk is full of "Shouldn't we be better about..." threads full of enlightened posters trying to extend their understanding, some of them the same posters in this thread sneering at the poors for daring to vote Republican.

People do not respond to condescension as an electoral or idealogical tactic and that's the big problem I see with so many would-be leftists that want to fight for the workers and poor but don't want to actually be around the workers and poor because they're idiot rubes that have no idea waht their own interests are.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 5:33 PM on November 13, 2015 [18 favorites]


don’t want to be in the same room with them, they want their vote but don’t want to hang out with them, then as they see it they’re voting their self-interest,

This says it well. I'm on the other side of the country, but I know a lot of people whose feelings are captured in that sentence. People hear disrespect loud and clear.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:36 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


The term, "the poors," is getting real offensive by this point.
posted by carping demon at 8:39 PM on November 13, 2015 [3 favorites]


Well, as an oldster and a poorster, what's a better term? Is some long euphemism actually a "better" phrase for talking about poor people than the poors? Speaking only for myself, I like the poors. It's direct, catchy and in no way judgmental or marketing speak, like senior citizens or baby boomers.
posted by Bella Donna at 10:19 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Moreover, I don't think it matters much what we're called. Poor people are screwed. The varieties and extent of the misery may vary by location, age, gender identification, race, and individual but yeah, we're screwed. (Actual poor people. I'm still keeping my head above water. Just.)
posted by Bella Donna at 10:24 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]


This says it well. I'm on the other side of the country, but I know a lot of people whose feelings are captured in that sentence. People hear disrespect loud and clear.
posted by Dip Flash at 18:36 on November 13 [3 favorites +] [!]
Dip Flash, I've been thinking about this since I read the article, and since you highlighted it. It makes me very uncomfortable because I recognize myself more than I'd like in that statement. This is definitely something that liberals like myself are going to have to face head-on and deal with honestly if we're ever going to find common cause with people we're looking past right now.
posted by wintermind at 7:04 AM on November 14, 2015 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I've tried to articulate my thoughts about this in previous threads (unsuccesfully), but I think the left, or at least liberals, confuse concern for an issue or problem with empathy for groups and individuals. Liberals think they are telegraphing concern, but it comes across as disprespectful, objectifying and othering. Nobody wants to be identified for their failures or their poor circumstances. Nobody wants their poor behaviors excused or their meager successes patronizingly praised. Bigotry of low expectations and all that.

When those individuals feel rightfully slighted, rather than listening to what they are being told (as so commonly and rightfully demanded when marginalized groups/people share experiences), liberals come up with all sorts of gymnastics as to why people supposedly vote against their own interests,etc.. Now I'm not going to argue that people's choices are always the best ones - nobody but a billionaire logically votes Republican in my book and even then that's iffy - but not even trying to take someone at their word for why someone votes like they vote (i.e. shutting up, quieting the inner Warrior on poverty and tuning into another's experience w/what it's like to receive food and cash assistance while thinking of yourself as a self sufficient person) is self defeating and helps to perpetuate the current shitty situation we are all in.
posted by the lake is above, the water below at 2:31 PM on November 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've taken road trips the last 4 years, three went Seattle-> Atlanta. I went through parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Nebraska, Kansas. There's a whole lot of the middle of the country where there is just nothing going on. And no reasons for anyone to stay. No industry, farms that no longer need as much labor and supporting services, and no real resources to extract.

We thought the Internet would help revitalize rural places, because, telecommuting, but funny how few employers really want to go that way.
posted by Windopaene at 1:22 PM on November 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


The next two stories, about predominantly black and hispanic communities, have been posted.
Well worth the read, and to ponder about some of the differences.
posted by bystander at 3:03 AM on November 21, 2015 [2 favorites]




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