National Opinions

Leonard Pitts Jr.: Stubborn toughness in face of poverty, ridicule

April Combs, who grew up in Booneville and is now homeless, waited in the town square for a friend to pick her up. She is leaving Booneville because she can't find work.
April Combs, who grew up in Booneville and is now homeless, waited in the town square for a friend to pick her up. She is leaving Booneville because she can't find work.

BOONEVILLE, Ky. — In a small office on the first floor of the Owsley County Courthouse, across the street from the Hometown Cafe, Johnny Logsdon, chief of the two-man police department, is talking with a reporter about life in this town of 82 people in the hills of Eastern Kentucky.

Logsdon keeps his answers short. He acknowledges that drug use — methamphetamine, mostly — is a problem here, but insists it's about the same as you'd find anywhere. He is much more interested in describing the department's policy of free motorist assistance. "If they lock themselves out of their cars, we provide a service; we unlock it for them. Away from here, they charge $60 to $100. We just do it for free as a community service."

It's not that he is unfriendly, but there is something guarded about him, something that is constantly taking your measure. People here, he explains, have been burned before by media.

Indeed, people here are still talking about the story the New York Times ran in June declaring neighboring Clay County "the hardest place in America to live." Which was positively complimentary compared to a piece the National Review ran six months before, declaring Owsley "The White Ghetto." Reporter Kevin D. Williamson wrote that instead of contemplating their bleak reality, the people here escape it with "the pills and the dope, the morning beers, the endless scratch-off lotto cards, healing meetings up on the hill, the federally funded ritual of trading cases of food-stamp Pepsi for packs of Kentucky's Best cigarettes and good old hard currency, tall piles of gas station nachos, the occasional blast of meth, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, petty crime, the draw, the recreational making and surgical unmaking of teenaged mothers, and death ..."

"You've got to understand," says Logsdon, "people shy away from reporters." Sure enough, a worker at the Family Dollar store doesn't want her name used. A woman at a medical conference in Hazard warns everyone in earshot in a loud voice that a reporter is among them. So it goes during a week spent wandering this county and adjacent counties discussing something America almost never talks about: white poverty.

Granted, America seldom discusses poverty of any hue, except insofar as conservative pundits and politicians use it as a not-subtle proxy for racial resentments among white voters. But white poverty is the great white whale of American social discourse, believed to exist but seldom seen.

As it turns out, our deeply racialized view of poverty bears no resemblance to reality. Though it's true that African-Americans are disproportionately likely to live below the poverty line, it is also true that the vast majority of those in poverty are white: 29.8 million people. In fact, there are more white poor than all other poor combined.

Owsley County is the epicenter of that poverty. Median income here is less than $20,000. The obesity rate is 50 percent. Life expectancy: 71.4 years, more than seven years below the national average. With 36 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line and 98.5 percent of its population identifying as white, it is the poorest — and one of the whitest — places in America.

If people are wary of reporters asking about such things, it's not difficult to understand. You get sick of being defined as a problem. Still, nobody denies there are problems here. Indeed, walk down Court Street talking to whomever will speak to you, and very quickly, a theme emerges: There is nothing here.

You hear that, or some variation, constantly in Booneville. "That's the thing about it," says Mayor Charles E. Long, 94, nursing a cola at the Hometown Cafe. "When [young people] get through college, if [they] can't find a job here. they have to go off. They go to Ohio or Indiana or Lexington or Winchester or Richmond. That's what hurts."

Even his own son left town, he says.

Nothing here

"There's no work," says Carl Smith, lounging beneath a fan with a few friends at a car wash down the street. "We've got two or three factories built, but we haven't been able to persuade any company to come in here and start any manufacturing."

"Ain't that much jobs," says Billy Smith, a young father, shopping next door at the Family Dollar store. "I've thought about moving to Lexington or somewhere like that. More opportunities."

Nothing here.

"It's always been hard times," says Lowell Morris, a retiree, holding court inside the cafe. "The geography is not good here. I mean, it's hillsides."

Nothing here. It's a litany.

"The farmers that's worked hard all their lives to build this place, they've all got the money," says April Combs, 32. "But as far as the younger generation, we have no future. I don't see none."

She was raised, she says, in a family of bootleggers and marijuana growers, has had drug issues of her own, and has been in and out of jail for the last few years. She is sitting on a step out front of the Hometown Cafe with, it seems, no particular place to go.

"As of now, I'm homeless. I stay here and there. It's a small place to be so homeless, but I don't get a check, I don't get stamps, I've got a medical card, but that's about it. I don't have many people that try to help me 'cause they're barely able to help themselves."

What will she do? "I'm stuck between a rock and a hard spot," she says. "Try to make a better life for me and then try to offer my kids something, 'cause this ain't it."

"The situation here in East Kentucky's lousy," says Dee Davis, founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg. "We're the poorest congressional district, we're the sickest congressional district with the lowest life expectancy. And you know, the irony is that this was forever one of the richest parts of the country in terms of mineral resources, and even beauty. What's going on here is what happens in a lot of places where the economy is an extractive economy; as different communities around the world compete, it pushes the price of the raw material down. So if you're not adding value to coal or oil or gas, what you're really doing is that you're in a competition with the rest of the world to deliver your commodity at the cheapest rate."

The Center for Rural Strategies is a nonprofit organization that works on policy issues affecting rural communities, but it is probably best known for its successful fight against The Real Beverly Hillbillies, a reality show CBS announced in 2003 that would have taken real people from this hardscrabble part of the world and plunked them down in a Beverly Hills mansion for the amusement of the television audience. "Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids," chortled a CBS executive.

Under pressure from Davis' group and from media, the network backed down. But it would prove to be a classic case of a battle won, and a war well and truly lost. That program never made it to air, but Here Comes Honey Boo Boo certainly did.

In a vacuum, yes, Honey Boo Boo, would be fairly meaningless. But the show is not aired in a vacuum. Rather, it is aired in a country where art and scholarship have spent two centuries pounding home the idea that some of us are "white trash," ignorant "crackers," and, most infamously, "hillbillies" — America's unalterable and unfixable misfits. That perception has been arguably as daunting an obstacle for this region as have the economic realities of coal.

In 1963, Harry M. Caudill published what is still regarded as a landmark in the study of the poor white South, Night Comes To The Cumberlands. Yet even that book, which takes pains to document how poverty was imposed upon Appalachia by its isolation and the predatory practices of lumbermen and coal magnates, also indicts what the author seems to feel is the native inferiority of the people. Appalachia, writes this "defender" of the region, was settled by the dregs of England, "human refuse dumped on a strange shore."

The thinking goes that the white South — and in particular, the poor white mountain South — is a land of primitives, a land of people who never quite evolved. "Our contemporary ancestors," one author dubbed them. Another called them "yesterday's people."

There is no national advocacy group to defend the white poor against such libels. You may malign them without a whisper of complaint.

The invisibility of white poverty, says Edmund Shelby, editor of the Beattyville Enterprise, is part of the problem. "Those of us who are aware of the issues facing Appalachians and those of us who speak out about those issues see that as one [thing] that has kept us in the position that we are in for so long. I think that can be said for a lot of poor populations, because if you can say things about people that dehumanize them, then there's no need to help them raise themselves up in any way because, after all, using that stereotype, they are incapable."

That invisibility is ironic. Although the War on Poverty is generally remembered for what it did and did not do for black people in the cities, it was actually Appalachia Lyndon Johnson had in mind. The president was deeply moved when he toured this part of the country. So was his predecessor, John F. Kennedy, who created the modern food-stamp program as a result. Kennedy's brother, Robert made his own sojourn here when he ran for president in 1968.

"People are still having a very, very difficult time," said Bobby Kennedy. "There is considerable hunger in this part of the country. There's no real hope for the future amongst many of these people who worked hard in the coal mines. And now that the coal mines have shut down, they have no place to go."

Education innovation

Forty-six years later, the situation is much the same. The only difference is, nobody talks about it now.

Actually, that isn't quite true. Though media and the public en masse have abandoned the topic, there is within the region itself a lively and ongoing effort to tackle poverty and its effects. For the last two years, for instance, self-described "theater practitioner" Robert Martin and children's book author Anne Shelby (wife of Edmund) have collaborated to put on a play, HomeSong, which Martin says is "based off of oral histories, story circles, one-on-one interviews" allowing local people to tell their own story for their own consumption instead of always being defined by others. In August, a community college in Hazard hosted the aforementioned medical conference touting a program designed to help bring health care to underserved communities.

Tim Bobrowski, superintendent of Owsley County Schools, and Jim Evans, his counterpart in neighboring Lee County, have partnered to use technology to improve services they offer students. For example: Because it is difficult to draw teachers in certain specialties to the area, they have come up with a way to share one another's in-demand teachers virtually. And kids here miss a lot of school because even a little snow makes steep mountain roads too treacherous for school buses. So Bobrowski has pioneered a program that "allows us to have our teachers at home teaching kids while they're at their home, using the Internet to make this happen."

There is, unfortunately, no tech solution for some of the other challenges students here face. "A lot of times," says Evans, "parents and grandparents in this community don't want to see their kids leave, they don't want them to go away from home even if they have high academics. I see that quite a bit. ... They feel like they're going to lose that child once they break away and go to college, instead of encouraging and saying, 'This is a good thing for you, we want to see you grow.'"

In one sense, you can't blame them for not wanting their kids to challenge the world outside their mountains. That world can be cruel. Camille Hooker, a graduate student from Clay County, recalls going to school at the University of Kentucky, 90 minutes from home, and being told she talked funny and asked if she were intimate with her cousin.

Anne Shelby still remembers decades ago as a college freshman in Louisville when she excitedly spoke up in class about a Chekhov play only to have everyone break out laughing over her hill country accent. It felt, she says now, "like I had been sledged in the face."

Jeff Hawkins recalls a TV program he saw some years ago. "They did a show on a family that lived out in the country somewhere, up in the head of a holler. And they showed a disabled child taking a bath. Then they showed the water hose that came off the mountain that is where they got their water from."

The video was intended to dramatize the grimness of the family's poverty. It was not, says Hawkins with wry understatement, "an attractive representation."

These days, he is executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, a consortium of school districts banded together to increase their purchasing power and provide teacher training, but at the time of this TV program, he was teaching high school. So he gave his students an assignment: re-cut the video and supply their own narrative. The kids, he says, had a different spin.

"They saw that the family who lived there was pretty creative because they had found a way to get potable water out of a deep mine and have it ran through a filter and into their house, because there was no way they could dig a well where they lived."

Poverty and race

The problem with the media, says Dee Davis, is that you're "always turning up in ways that you're either laughed at or you're pitied. In some ways, being pitied is much harder because, look, we're all Americans. It's the land of opportunity. People can make it here, people can succeed. So when you're stereotyped, when you're put in a classification of being pitiful, you feel the derision, you feel the limits, you feel restraints put on your families, your kids, your neighborhood. And it's painful."

It is also familiar. Or at least, it should be. When you consider the markers of white southern poverty — meaning the poverty itself, the insulting stereotypes, the lack of opportunity, the lack of access to healthcare, the educational challenges, the routine media libel and what Martin Luther King, Jr. described as a "degenerating sense of nobodiness" — it is remarkable how many of them are also markers of the African-American struggle.

Not to overstate the nexus between white poverty and blackness. Race is its own universe and carries its own weights. As University of Kentucky political science professor Herbert Reid once sagely noted, "America does not hang its 'hillbillies' — it laughs at them."

But if it is important not to overstate that nexus, it is also important to acknowledge that it exists, and that blinding African Americans and poor whites to its existence — dividing and conquering them — has long been a favored stratagem of American business and political interests. In lieu of a living wage, poor whites were given the cherished social capital of whiteness.

Said Martin Luther King Jr.: "If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man."

While that social capital still has undeniable value, it is also true that there is a certain grim egalitarianism to poverty. Hunger feels the same in a white stomach as it does in a black one. It was in hopes of making this point, illustrating this sameness, that King launched his Poor People's Campaign, a massive demonstration in Washington that was to have united the black poor with their white, Hispanic and American Indian counterparts to press for redress on the thing they had in common: their poverty. But then King went to Memphis where a white supremacist shot him in the face. And one of the great tragedies of American history is that from that moment to this, no one else has really tried to make King's point.

To travel in Eastern Kentucky, to drive down roads that twist like a snake having a nightmare, to pass the sagged-in barns and rusting trailers, to roll through tiny "nothing here" towns beneath mists that shroud the verdant hollows and mountains that stare uncaring upon the comings and goings of women and men, is to be haunted by thoughts of what might have happened had anyone picked up the gauntlet King dropped.

People here often tell you they want to die in this place. They say this even after telling you there is nothing here.

"You know," says Robert Martin, paraphrasing a speech Anne Shelby wrote for their play, "if you look at the quality of life index, we don't score very high. We don't have museums, and we don't have this and we don't have that. But how many points would you get for our streams and for people who show up at your door with a casserole and say, 'Call me if you need anything.' How many points would you get for being able to grow up in a place where your parents and their parents grew up?"

There is a stubborn toughness in the kind of love for place those words express. It is a toughness that finds its mirror in the toughness demanded of all the people struggling in all the "nothing here" places all over the country. It is a toughness that rebukes the artificial stratifications of race. "All life is interrelated," said King.

And surely, he would have welcomed "yesterday's people" as co-authors of tomorrow's hope.