How do 21,300 people get left behind in the most prosperous
country in the world? A new article from the New York Times tells a long and heartbreaking story of the cycle of poverty in McDowell County, West Virginia. An excerpt from 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back:
McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, has been
emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century. John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960 and was so appalled that he promised to send help if elected president. His first executive order created the modern food stamp program, whose first recipients were McDowell County residents. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, it was the squalor of Appalachia he had in mind. The federal programs that followed — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living.
But a half-century later, with the poverty rate again on the
rise, hardship seems merely to have taken on a new face in McDowell County. The economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.
The details are harrowing. Fourty-six percent of children in
the county don’t live with a biological parent. The death rate from drug overdose is over eight times the national average. The incarceration rate is among the highest in the U.S.
In the 1950’s, 100,000 people called McDowell County home. In 2014,
that number has plummeted to 21,300, and the county is populated only by those who can’t leave due to lack of education or skills, or have family connections that keep them rooted in the area.
With the disappearance of coal mining jobs, many families
now rely on Social Security, food stamps, and disability payments. Dependence on government money has become “a way of life, passed from generation to generation.” Fewer than one out of three participates in the labor force (works, or is looking for work)–a figure that compares poorly to the national labor participation rate of 63.2% (as of March 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics).
McDowell County is aware of their detachment from the rest
of the country, and places a large importance on staying loyal to “us,” as opposed to “them.” Fifteen-year-old Emalee sees the possibility of pursuing a college education in her future, but her family doesn’t want her to go. Says Florisha McGuire of leaving her small West Virginian town to attend college: “you’d think I’d committed a crime.”
There are so many factors that we could blame for the destitution
of McDowell County. There’s the extensive dependence on welfare that disincentives productive work. There’s the economic shift that caused the disappearance of coal mining jobs. There’s pervasive drug use that puts otherwise good people in jail, separating parents from children and citizens from society. There’s the lack of hope for betterment in the future that discourages seeking out opportunity elsewhere.
The truth is, all of these variables interact with and feed
upon each other. Perhaps the one sure lesson that we can take away is that poverty, at its core, is not just a money issue–it’s a community issue. Since the primary source of community is the family, supporting the familial role is a good place to start when planning a war on poverty that works. One bright spot in the story of McDowell County is the efforts of Florisha McGuire, who, after getting a college education, returned to her home town as a school principal. The article quotes Florisha as saying: “As God calls preachers to preach, he calls teachers to certain jobs,” and, “I really believe it is my mission to do this and give these kids a chance.” Though I’m guessing Florisha has little in the way of money to offer, her investment in the community is priceless.