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Why Don’t Poor People Move?

Ron Bailey returns home to Appalachia in search of answers

Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey comes from a family that used to live in West Virginia coal country, until his grandparents and their six grown children migrated out of the mountains and into Virginia, a hundred miles away. Though Bailey grew up very poor, he still thought of the folks back home in McDowell County as the truly poor. And they were, with many of them living in Third World conditions.

Bailey went back to McDowell after forty years away, to see how things had changed. Because the coal industry has withered, it’s worse than ever there; McDowell is the poorest and sickest county in a poor state. The average life expectancy for men — 64 years — is the lowest of any county in the United States. Bailey wrote a piece for Reason attempting to answer the question, “Why don’t people just leave?” Excerpts:

Debra Elmore, who oversees Destiny’s after-school program, backs her kids’ generalizations with hard numbers that are hard to hear as well. “Ninety percent of kids in McDowell County schools are below the poverty threshold for free and reduced-price lunches,” she says. “Forty-seven percent do not live with their biological parents, often because of incarceration and drug addiction, and 77 percent live in households in which no one has a job.” And these bleak stats almost certainly understate the problem. Poverty numbers from the state, for instance, do not include children under 5 years of age.

With coal dying, there is nothing else for people to do to make a living in McDowell. Bailey raises the question of whether or not government aid is artificially supporting the economy there. Forty-seven percent of personal income in the county is in the form of disability, Social Security, or other kinds of welfare:

“The provision of subsidies to induce people to stay in…place delays the inevitable. At worst, such subsidies effectively retain the kinds of people who are the least able to adjust, ultimately, to market forces,” write Iowa State University economists David Kraybill and Maureen Kilkenny in a 2003 working paper evaluating the rationales for and against place-based economic development policies. “It does no good to retain (or attract) people in places that are too costly for most businesses, which cannot sustain economic activity. That turns the place into a poverty trap.”

Kathie Whitt, a woman who heads a local agency that coordinates aid services, says:

“So many folks in McDowell have an entitlement mentality. Everybody owes them a living, housing, clothing, and food. They are the first ones who line up at every giveaway,” she says. “Unfortunately that group is expanding.”

Whitt worries about what will happen when the Baby Boomers step down from their leadership roles. “We have really seen some dark days,” she says. “I do not feel that we have a good future based on where we are now. I think that McDowell County will continue to deteriorate.”

There has been a generational collapse of morals and morale:

Based on her experience with social services, Whitt reckons that a high percentage of McDowell County residents between the ages of 18 and 40 are drug users and require a lot of assistance. “So many younger people in their 20s and 30s are strung out and walking around like zombies,” she says. “They don’t work and they don’t raise their kids.”

“It seems like parenting is a thing that people don’t know how to do anymore,” she continues. “Our parents taught us, but somehow the next generation didn’t learn to be mothers and fathers.” Again, the evidence is that about half the kids in the county are not living with a biological parent.


“A lot of the younger people don’t have the mind-set to keep up with themselves,” Whitt explains. “You see it in their houses, their cars, and their kids.”

As has long been reported in the inner-city black community, these poor white Appalachian communities feature grandparents and even great-grandparents taking care of their own grandchildren:

Asked why she takes care of her great-grandchildren, Slagle replies, “If we don’t, who is going to take care of them? If we don’t do it, social services will send them out of state.” She says her granddaughter, now a 22-year-old home health care aide “on pain pills,” has had three children by three different boyfriends. The newest baby lives with his father. The oldest was born when Slagle’s granddaughter was 15 years old. “She’s like so many young people today,” Slagle says. “They are so sorry; they just don’t want to do right. They stay on their phones and gadgets all day while their babies are doing God knows what.…Young people are not like when we grew up. Kids had chores then; now they only have gadgets to play with.”

I ask FACES’ Whitt why so many young unmarried women in the county become pregnant. She sighs and notes that birth control is freely available at school. Most of the girls and women are “on medical cards” (that is, enrolled in Medicaid) that would pay for contraception as well. It doesn’t matter. “There are no consequences to pregnancy—they get immediate access to a medical card, food stamps, a check, WIC, and home visits,” she explains. “They have all the welfare benefits as long as their kids are not adopted, plus there’s no babysitting, since the grandparents will look after the kids.”

And so on. Well, why don’t people just leave?

That question is actually surprisingly easy to answer: They did. After all, 80 percent of McDowell’s population, including my grandparents, cleared out of the county to seek opportunities elsewhere during the last half-century.

But as the mines mechanized and closed down, why didn’t the rest go, too? Reed, Whitt, and Slagle all more or less agree that many folks in McDowell are being bribed by government handouts to stay put and to stay poor. Drug use is the result of the demoralization that follows.

But if you cut welfare out, there will be incredible human damage, Bailey concedes. What to do, then? Read the whole thing. 

A couple of things here. One, middle-class liberals often think that the reason for teen pregnancy is the lack of sex education and/or the lack of availability of contraception. They can’t imagine that teenagers would actually choose to bear children, because it is so unreasonable. But it’s true. A friend of mine, who is white, taught for a couple of years in a rural all-black public school. She couldn’t get over how most of the ninth-grade girls in her class aspired to nothing higher than having a baby by some boy before graduation, and how most of the boys in the class aspired to nothing at all. All the talk with them about their own moral agency, about how things don’t have to be this way, about how they could better their lives if they did this thing and didn’t do that thing — it was all useless. She was met with blank stares. She even told them how she was a single mother who had been on welfare for a hard time in her life, but she got her act together, finished her college degree, and was now a teacher. Nothing. No response. It depressed her so much that she finally asked for a transfer.

A second aspect of Bailey’s story about the poor whites of McDowell County is the role of family and community in perpetuating the habits of poverty across generations. You really need to read Bailey’s story to get the whole picture, but the gist of it is that people don’t leave because that’s where their people are. If a poor person left McDowell County — assuming they had the money to pay for the move and to establish themselves elsewhere, which is a lot to assume — they would be moving from a place where they knew just about everybody to a place where they would be a stranger. And not just a stranger, but a stranger with no money, leaving them extremely vulnerable with no one to help them. You can see why the idea of leaving would be unappealing. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.

Bailey’s story reminds me of a conversation I had not long ago with a black friend who had grown up in stark poverty, but who had put it all behind her, literally. She relocated far away from her rural hometown and her family because she wanted better for herself than what she saw growing up. Like so many poor young adults, she joined the military, which was her ticket out of town, and later, into college. When I saw her, she had been taking care of her aged father for a couple of months. He had been struggling with alcohol off and on all his life. She invited him to come live with her and her husband and kids for a time, just to clear her head. The day before, she had returned him to his home.

My friend told me that while he was staying with them, her dad kept openly marveling at her husband, saying that he couldn’t understand why his son-in-law was so nice to him and to his daughter. He had never seen men behave that way towards others, and it opened his eyes to possibilities he had never considered. My friend was worried that her dad was going to slip back into his old bad habits now that he had returned home, into a social environment where booze, drugs, womanizing, and cheating others was normative.

Here’s why I tell you that story. My friend had read my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, with its praise of family, community, and place in stabilizing one’s life in time of crisis. She came from the same kind of town that I did, but her experience of family, community, and place was precisely the opposite of mineWhen your family and community are badly broken, those bonds that keep you tied to a place could destroy you if you don’t sever them. Had my friend stayed loyal to the people and the place where she grew up, she would almost certainly have had a very different life than the one she has now — a life that would have been worse in every way. Yet, she told me, this is the life that all of the siblings in her large family chose — and they’re all doing badly.

McDowell County sounds like the same kind of place, but with poor white people. Family and community are supposed to be good things. When they go bad, though, you really are alone in this world, unless you have the imagination to conceive of a better life for yourself, and the resources, both in terms of determination and opportunity, to get out. It’s probably the case that many people stay in these places for the same reason that high school girls have babies.

I’m thinking this morning of the difference that the way people construe the narrative of their lives can make in these situations. The other day, I posted about the difference between “redemption stories” and “contamination stories.” Both are responses to suffering, and a person or a community can tell themselves either story based on the same set of facts.

The redemption story ends with some form of, “…and despite all those bad things, lasting good came out of that experience.” The contamination story ends with some form of “… and after that, things were never good again.” Emily Esfahani Smith, whose forthcoming book The Power of Meaning introduced those terms to me, writes that psychological researchers have found that people who construe their personal narratives as part of a redemption story are much more resilient than people who construe their lives as contamination stories.

My black friend who moved to the city from the country had long thought of her life as a redemption story, and worked to write the ending herself. I don’t know this for a fact, but I would suppose that her relatives back home see their lives as contamination stories in which they are fated to be victims of both circumstance and the malice of others. I have a white working-class friend who lives out in the country, and she’s forever trying to put fires out in her own sprawling clan. She’s a good woman, but it’s amazing to me how neither she nor her people seem to grasp that they have moral agency. These are not stupid people, but they just drift through life, from one mess of their own making to another. Every one of the stories my white friend tells about her life when we get together is a contamination story.

A couple of years ago had the opportunity to leave, to start her life over again with relatives in another part of the US. I strongly encouraged her to go. She did not go, because she couldn’t imagine leaving her people behind. I pointed out that by her own admission, they took advantage of her all the time, in part because she’s a hard worker whose job provides a steady income. Didn’t matter to her. Even though her children are adults now, she could scarcely imagine leaving them and the others, despite the fact that they were draining her dry.

And so, every time I run into her and ask about her family, I hear a litany of stories that have to do with drunkenness, drug abuse, violence, and above all, broken families. There’s my good-hearted friend, right in the middle, seemingly the only thing that holds them all together, insofar as they have it “together” at all. The world in which she lives is one of near-constant chaos, all of it caused by terrible behavior. When I hear people say that there’s nothing wrong with folks like that that good jobs won’t fix, I roll my eyes. These people’s lives are so chaotic it’s hard to imagine that any of them could discipline themselves enough to hold a decent job. This is a matter of a contaminated culture. The only way for the kids raised in it to break the cycle is to leave it all behind.

One last thing: my black friend is a practicing Christian, and has been all her life. She was raised in a strict church, and says from the time she was young, she was asking all kinds of questions about God. She told me something interesting. Despite belonging to a church and actually going to church, she was the only member of her family who ever thought that Jesus really wanted his followers to change the way they were living.




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