Like its black urban counterparts, the Big White Ghetto suffers from a whole trainload of social problems, but the most significant among them may be adverse selection: Those who have the required work skills, the academic ability, or the simple desperate native enterprising grit to do so get the hell out as fast as they can, and they have been doing that for decades. As they go, businesses disappear, institutions fall into decline, social networks erode, and there is little or nothing left over for those who remain. It’s a classic economic death spiral: The quality of the available jobs is not enough to keep good workers, and the quality of the available workers is not enough to attract good jobs. These little towns located at remote wide spots in helical mountain roads are hard enough to get to if you have a good reason to be here. If you don’t have a good reason, you aren’t going to think of one.
It has not escaped my mind that all my Little Way localism wouldn’t have amounted to anything if I didn’t come from a good little town. Not a rich town, but a good town. The thing is, I’m sure a lot of these Appalachian towns were once “good” in the same way. It didn’t last. I was driving through a very poor part of my own state last year, and thought about if I had come from one of those dying villages, depopulated and despairing hamlets whose downtowns look like locust husks, would I be living there now? Would I have come home after my sister died? No, I probably wouldn’t have.
“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison. It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders. “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” Kristof wrote, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”
Many liberals think this sort of thing is some sort of right-wing fable — the idea that adults would cripple their children’s prospects for the sake of more welfare money. I grew up knowing of poor white people in my part of the world who did just that. It wasn’t common, but it happened.
There is much here to confound conservatives, too. Jim DeMint likes to say that marriage is our best anti-poverty program, and he also has a point. But a 2004 study found that the majority of impoverished households in Appalachia were headed by married couples, not single mothers. Getting and staying married is not a surefire prophylactic against poverty. Neither are prophylactics. Kentucky has a higher teen-motherhood rate than the national average, but not radically so, and its young mothers are more likely to be married. Kentucky is No. 19 in the ranking of states by teen pregnancy rates, but it is No. 8 when it comes to teen birth rates, according to the Guttmacher Institute, its young women being somewhat less savage than most of their counterparts across the country. Kentucky and West Virginia have abortion rates that are one-fourth those of Rhode Island or Connecticut, and one-fifth that of Florida. More marriage, less abortion: Not exactly the sort of thing out of which conservative indictments are made. But marriage is less economically valuable, at least to men, in Appalachia – like their counterparts elsewhere, married men here earn more than their unmarried counterparts, but the difference is smaller and declining.
In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place. There is no cure for poverty, because there is no cause of poverty — poverty is the natural condition of the human animal. It is not as though labor and enterprise are unknown here: Digging coal is hard work, farming is hard work, timbering is hard work — so hard that the best and brightest long ago packed up for Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Memphis or Houston. There is to this day an Appalachian bar in Detroit and ex-Appalachian enclaves around the country. The lesson of the Big White Ghetto is the same as the lessons we learned about the urban housing projects in the late 20th century: The best public-policy treatment we have for poverty is dilution. But like the old project towers, the Appalachian draw culture produces concentration, a socioeconomic Salton Sea that becomes more toxic every year.
There’s a profound, and profoundly depressing, truth here: some people just don’t have what it takes to be anything but poor:
“The government gives people checks, but nobody teaches them how to live,” says Teresa Barrett, a former high-school principal who now publishes the Owsley County newspaper. “You have people on the draw getting $3,000 a month, and they still can’t live. When I was at the school, we’d see kids come in from a long weekend just starved to death. But you’ll see those parents at the grocery store with their 15 cases of Pepsi, and that’s all they’ve got in the buggy — you know what they’re doing. Everybody knows, nobody does anything. And when you have that many people on the draw, that’s a big majority of voters.”
What do you do with people like that? Many of us — conservatives and liberals both — are outraged at the idea that there is nothing that can realistically be done to ease their estate, to deliver them from this kind of grinding suffering. But what if, for some people, it’s true? What if the reality of the situation defeats idealism? What do you do then? Can you do anything that matters? I’m not asking rhetorically; I mean it.
Read all of Williamson’s piece. It’s pretty sobering. What a challenging piece of reporting. Thanks to reader EK for sending it.