When most people think of "poverty in America" images of boarded up inner city schools and black families on welfare immediately come to mind. The reality of poverty is that one of the poorest counties in America is just 2 hours from my apartment, in Lee County, southeast of Lexington. Lee County is 97% white, and the county's per capita income is under $14,000 a year. But the idea here is that everything is the federal government's fault, and more specifically President Obama's problem, for structural issues that have been around for decades.
Bob Smith, editor of the local Three Forks Tradition newspaper, looked out the window of his Main Street office, resting one hand on his prodigious paunch and twisting his handlebar mustache with the other.
“The reason this town is struggling,” he said, “rests squarely on the current administration in Washington. The potential for this town is here. There’s opportunity for tourism, and a population that’s ready to work—but there aren’t any jobs.” Smith doesn’t buy the official job growth numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “If there were all these jobs they say are being created, you wouldn’t see all these stores closed down. This town has potential, but the liberal media up in Lexington [Kentucky] won’t credit us ‘mountain folk’ with being able to chew gum and walk down the sidewalk at the same time.”
On his desk sat a mountain of paper, books, and office supplies. A large dictionary was bookmarked with an array of objects—pens, flyers, a pair of scissors—and a decorative wooden box at the corner of the desk read, “All a man really needs out of life is three squares a day, a roof over his head, a reasonably good woman, and a damn good shotgun.”
“In 1964, when I left Beattyville for a short while, there wasn’t a soul that didn’t have work in this town,” he recalled. “There was no welfare, no unemployment. Whoever thinks this War on Poverty hasn’t cost us is out of their mind. Do you know what the national debt is? Seventeen and a half trillion. And do you think it’s any coincidence that the cost for the War on Poverty has totaled seventeen and a half trillion? I don’t think so. It’s the same exact figure.”
This is the prevailing attitude in a lot of small town flyover country, the kind of place I grew up in back in North Carolina, you'll meet a dozen Bob Smiths just walking down the street. Most importantly, these are the folks who honestly believe all the "real" money being used to fight poverty is a massive giveaway going to inner city black kids and not poor Appalachian towns like Beattyville.
Never mind that Beattyville has a major drug problem, and people find the money to pay for their habits around here.
In the middle of Kooper’s General Store is a large wooden table where people come to chain smoke and talk over bologna sandwiches. The owner of the store, Karl, sat across from a soft-spoken logger named James who was on his lunch break.
“I hate the drugs in this damn country,” Karl said. “That’s the cause of most the problems we have around here—not all, but most. They spend millions of dollars to fix it, but that’s all for show—they let this county go wild. Kids get hooked on this shit and you see it generation after generation. The parents pass it along to the kids.”
James nodded in agreement as he chewed his sandwich. He spoke up only every once in a while, usually to agree with Karl.
“You see the same people running around with this shit,” Karl continued. “Same families year after year, and nobody ever fusses. The sheriff has his hands tied, he can’t do anything about it. The FBI, the government—they don’t wanna deal with it. Too much money in drugs. Judges make money off of it, lawyers make money off of it, state police make money off of it.”
“Pharmaceutical companies make plenty off it,” James added.
“Exactly,” Karl said.
The war on drugs has certainly been bad in Appalachia. And in many ways these are the same problems that you would find in inner-city Detroit or Cleveland or Phoenix or a host of other major cities. What these places need is investment, real investment, but of course, that would be a handout.
And we can't have that.