Inside Owsley: America’s poorest white county

Owsley county’s population lives below the government-designated poverty line, including 56.3 percent of children.

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Vehicle with rebel flag plating parked centrally in Booneville town square [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Booneville, Kentucky –  Small clouds of cigarette smoke rise and then dissolve amid a steady chorus of small talk. The Ole Bus Stop Diner is the only restaurant in the tiny Appalachian town of Booneville that is still open for business. The others have long since closed down.

Tucked between the tree-specked mountains in southeastern Kentucky, Booneville is the seat of Owsley County, an almost uniformly white community and one of the most food stamp-dependent counties in the United States.

“Mind your own biscuits and it’s all gravy,” reads a wooden decorative sign on the wall. “It’s my kitchen and I’ll fry if I want to,” says another. On the adjacent wall hangs a wooden plaque glorifying the constitution’s Second Amendment – the one that guarantees the right to bear arms – along with a US flag and the silhouette of a rifle-toting soldier.

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Kayla Reed, a 22-year-old waitress at the diner and mother of a two-year-old son, says there are few opportunities for young people in Owsley County. “There’s not much you can do around here,” she says. “There’s not really many jobs.”

Reed, who completed two years of university courses before returning to work after having her child, hopes to go back to school and leave Booneville. “I don’t plan on raising my son here … I would rather my kid get a better education,” she says.

Many young people search for work in larger cities such as Lexington or Richmond, both of which are more than an hour’s drive away, Kayla explains. “I don’t think [the presidential elections] make much of a difference. I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

The US Census Bureau estimated last year that Owsley county’s 4,461-person population is more than 98 percent white. According to Al Jazeera’s analysis of US census data, it is the nation’s poorest white-majority county in terms of annual median household income.

At 10.4 percent last year, the county’s unemployment rate in 2015 was nearly twice as much as the national average of 5.25 percent . Worse still, Owsley county’s median household income of $19,146 was just over a third of the national median income of $55,775 in 2015.

More than 45 percent of Owsley county’s population lives below the government-designated poverty line, including 56.3 percent of children and more than a third of those over 65.

According to recent data available from the US government, more than half of personal income came from governmental monetary benefits in 2009, and at least 52 percent of the county’s residents received food stamps in 2011.

The Ole Bus Stop Diner is the epicentre of public life in Booneville , where Owsley county’s administrative offices are located. Dozens of locals pass through the diner every hour. Some sit for a while, drinking coffee with friends; others pop in to pick up their takeaway orders.

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A heavy set, grey-bearded man in a baseball cap, denim jacket and blue jeans saunters to the register. “Got any money with you today, boss?” the cashier asks him.

“Naw,” he replies.

“All right boss,” she says and writes his name on a pad.

Across from the diner is the county court, the nucleus of the town’s tiny square.

Down the road a single-screen cinema, closed for more than two decades, sits in disrepair. Beyond its busted-out windows there is just darkness. Dead weeds are twined around a blank sign in the parking lot.

A group of old men in baseball caps and button-up plaid shirts sit outside the courthouse, smoking their cigarettes in silence. One of them has a pistol holstered to the belt loop of his jeans. His arm rests on a walker.

More than 45 percent of  Owsley  county's population lives below the poverty line, including 56.3 percent of children and more than a third of those over 65  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
More than 45 percent of Owsley county’s population lives below the poverty line, including 56.3 percent of children and more than a third of those over 65  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Lowell Morris: ‘It was easier being poor back then’

As is the case in many rural areas of Appalachia, poverty here is as old as the county itself. Hidden in the rough, mountainous terrain and without a railroad, the county didn’t develop like many of those around it.

The population of Owsley County peaked at 8,957 in 1940, according to US Decennial Census data. But mass migration from Appalachia as people left in search of work after World War II and the ongoing trickle of young people out of the region to find jobs in urban centres left the population at less than half of that.

Sixty-eight-year-old Lowell Morris was born and raised in Booneville. He wears denim overalls and work boots every day and only occasionally removes his camouflage hat with its bent, blue peak and the word “Kentucky” on it. A pair of glasses sits slightly slanted on his face, a beard covers the bottom half of it.

He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade so that he could work to support his grandparents, who had raised him. With his opportunities limited to working in tobacco fields, his income was meagre. Money was scarce, but life was manageable, he says.

Though they lived in a small wooden shack, Lowell remembers how, on Saturdays, there wouldn’t be an empty parking space in the town square and the eateries would be bustling with life.

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Back then, during morning drives along the snaking hillside roads, Lowell would see bountiful tobacco farms. As he made his way out of town to a neighbouring county, he would pass dozens of coal trucks on their way to and from the mines that tunnelled through the hills.

Being poor was easier in the 1950s and early 1960s, he says, because the community would band together to help those who were in need.

“You didn’t go to the mailbox to get a cheque,” Lowell says, referring to government welfare benefits. “You didn’t go to a mailbox to get food stamps. Everything came from the garden … Everybody grew what they ate.”

Lowell, who worked as a school security guard and volunteer deputy sheriff for more than three decades, has never married. For most of his adult life, he has taken care of his two disabled sisters.

On a walk through downtown Booneville , he points out deserted businesses, a closed down barber’s shop and the Hometown Cafe, empty save for a few tables and chairs and masses of dust. “None of these places could survive when Walmart came to neighbouring counties in the 80s and 90s,” he says sadly. “We used to have some good times down here, I tell you what.”

Starting in the 1960s and 1970s, many men found work in the coal mines of neighbouring counties. But Owsley ‘s own mines were smaller, less abundant and unable to bring in comparable revenue for the county’s development.

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Today the tobacco fields are deserted and have grown into unruly backcountry, with towering weeds and tangled brush blanketing the land. They have been left to the elements by their former owners and money-strapped county authorities.

In recent years, the closure of coal mines across the Appalachian region has left residents with ever fewer job options. On the routes out of Booneville, a handful of roads leading to old coal mining sites are sealed with padlocked gates.

Smoke billows from the chimneys of old wooden homes and trailers, disappearing into the mist that clouds the town’s streets and hovers above the fields.

The memories of a better past haunt Owsley County, and its abandoned homes and drooping barns are testament to the incremental collapse taking place in low-income communities across eastern Kentucky.

Lowell Morris, 68, was born and raised in  Booneville    [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
Lowell Morris, 68, was born and raised in Booneville   [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

The Mayor of Booneville : ‘We’re in some bad times’

Ninety-seven-year-old Mayor Charles Long sits in a recliner in the living room of his two-storey, antebellum-era home in downtown Booneville . He has held office uncontested for the past 58 years.

“I think we’re in some bad times. They keep sayin’ we’re in good times, but Lord I tell you what,” says Charles, who is wearing a maroon hat that reads Booneville Mayor.  “I don’t know – the jobs just aren’t here.”

The mayor mentions an industrial building erected more than a decade ago. A host of prospective tenants never materialised, and no new businesses have set up shop in years. The building sits empty.

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“Well, when the kids get through school here usually they had to go to Ohio or Indiana to find work,” Charles adds. Pictures of Booneville throughout history and of his relatives, past and present, cover the wood-planked living room walls. “There ain’t nothin’ here.”

Although a Republican, he says he doesn’t plan on voting because he has little faith in Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump or his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton to take care of small-town communities like Booneville . “I wish a good Christian man was running,” he says.

The mayor’s proudest achievement came in the late 1960s, when the county was able to expand water and sewage services to homes outside of the town’s municipal limits.

Mayor Charles Long, 99, has held office uncontested for the past 58 years  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
Mayor Charles Long, 99, has held office uncontested for the past 58 years  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Katie Bennett: ‘The grown-ups can do without food more than the kids’

When President Lyndon B Johnson announced the signing of the Food Stamp Act of 1964 he was making permanent a pilot programme that had run for the previous three years. He said the programme “[would] be one of our most valuable weapons for the war on poverty”.

More than 50 years later, many residents of Booneville remain dependent on food stamps.


by ”Katie

don’t last the whole month. It really does [scare] me. I raise my kids alone since they been born. It’s harder for a parent to do anything now”]

A few kilometres outside of town, Katie Bennett, a 30-year-old single mother of three, sits on the porch of the Baptist Church near the hollow where she lives in a rundown trailer. Her three-year-old daughter Theresa rests in her lap, alternating between fiddling with a tiny pair of pink-rimmed, flower-printed sunglasses and taking swigs from a plastic bottle of Mountain Dew.

Bennett is one of the 52 percent of Owsley County residents who rely on welfare and food stamps to survive, drawing $649 a month to feed her children and herself. Without a car or an education, she has been unable to land a job and cannot easily make it to town to search for work.

Like others with no opportunities and little hope, she has struggled to put enough food on the table for her children as food stamps have been cut time and again in recent years. Single mothers, she says, feel the cuts more than anyone else.

In February 2014, President Barack Obama signed into law $8.7bn in cuts to the food stamp programme, resulting in an average monthly loss of $90 for upwards of 850,000 homes across the country.

“[Food stamps] don’t last the whole month. It really does [scare] me. I raise my kids alone since they been born. It’s harder for a parent to do anything now.”

The food stamps last “probably till the middle of each month”, Katie says. For the rest of the month, she relies on the goodwill of neighbours and relatives to feed her daughter and two sons. Often faced with choosing between feeding herself or her children, Katie frequently goes to bed hungry.

“The grown-ups can do without [food] more than kids. I love my kids; I want the best for my kids,”she concludes.

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Nothing improves for her or the others like her after the elections, she says before heading off into the hollow and along the gravel path that leads to her trailer home.

Although neither Clinton nor Trump have threatened to do away with the food stamps programme, the Republican and Democratic parties share a long history of making deep cuts to it. In Booneville, people are bracing themselves for more.

Single mother of three, Katie Bennett, says food stamps only last until the middle of the month [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
Single mother of three, Katie Bennett, says food stamps only last until the middle of the month [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Hayes Smith: ‘People will starve to death if food stamps are cut’

Hayes Smith, 54, stands in the driveway of his small wooden home, which shares a lot with a crumbling shack and a deserted trailer home. Surviving on $2,000 of disability benefits, received because of a back injury he suffered while working in a nursing home, he explains that “people would starve to death” if food stamps were cut entirely.

Talking over the barking of two dogs chained to rusty old cars in his front garden, he explains that he used to receive food stamps.

Although he plans to vote for Trump, Hayes says: “That’s a shame we just got them two people to vote for. Hillary’s a snake in the grass and Trump probably is too. In eight years, things will be the same here or even worse. I can see each month go by and it gets a little worse here.”

Against the bleak backdrop of job losses, institutional inattention, developmental neglect and negative stereotyping, many locals are openly resentful of the federal government and distrustful of outsiders and the media.

Owsley County voted an overwhelming 80.9 percent Republican during the 2012 presidential elections. But many residents of the poverty-ridden county say they feel abandoned by both parties.

Della and Carl Noble: ‘Whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, there’s no jobs’

Carl Noble, a 69-year-old retiree, sits on a rocking chair on his porch watching the occasional car pass along the country road that leads from Booneville to neighbouring Breathitt County, where he worked in the coal mines for 26 years.

He speaks softly, almost mumbling, and his sentences are punctuated with a wheezing sound caused by black lung disease – the result of inhaling coal dust for two-and-a-half decades. He gets up, walks cautiously towards the screen door and then disappears inside. A few moments later he is back on the rocking chair with a Pepsi in his hand.

In 1996, Carl had to leave his job to have open heart surgery. Unable to work afterwards, he spent two years hopping through bureaucratic hoops to get governmental compensation for his lung condition and disability benefits.

The things that Hillary and Donald stand for is just not something I like. One's no better than the other

by Della

Today his only income is a little above $2,000 in government disability benefits. “I’m voting for the young generation. I’m voting for my grandchildren,” he says.

Carl’s father died when he was 11 years old. With his mother receiving a monthly welfare cheque of $160 to support Carl and his 14 brothers and sisters, he dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to Chicago to find work.

Reflecting on not being able to complete his studies, he says: “Free education – I’m for it. You’re in one of the poorest counties, well, in the United States.”

Carl was a supporter of Donald Trump until the recent media uproar over the sexist comments the Republican presidential hopeful has made. Now he plans to vote for Clinton.

Although his wife, Della, says she hasn’t yet decided how she’ll vote, she echoes many of her husband’s sentiments. She recalls how her son was unable to find a job in Owsley County after graduating from university. He spent years working in West Virginia before moving back to Booneville and finding a job in Lexington, an hour’s drive away.

“I would love to see [young people] have opportunities to stay in the mountains and stay with their families and see the county grow, to see our future here. It doesn’t look right now,” Della says.

“The things that Hillary and Donald stand for is just not something I like. One’s no better than the other,” she adds. “There’s no difference. Whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, there’s no jobs.”

Like many residents of Booneville, Della resents depictions of low-income communities in the Appalachian region as lazy and uneducated.

“People here are not respected in the way they need to be. We’re looked at like backwoods people who don’t know anything, but that’s not right. There’s good people here,” she says.

“The stereotype of people in the mountains in not true. I see people that want to work,” she says, explaining that people don’t want to be dependent on food stamps and welfare.

Eric Kerl: ‘Hillbillies, racist illiterates and sexual deviants’

Eric Kerl is an editorial board member of the International Socialist Review Journal and a writer who focuses on the Appalachian region. He argues that mainstream media depictions of white poverty, particularly in Appalachia, is laden with sweeping stereotypes and “poor-bashing” generalisations.

The phenomenon has a long history in popular culture and media coverage of the region, Eric explains, pointing to how the Appalachians are portrayed as uneducated “hillbillies, racist illiterates and sexual deviants”.

There is certainly no shortage of examples, he adds.

Call of the Wildman, a reality television series, followed the exploits of Ernie Brown Jr, an almost completely toothless Kentuckian also known as the Turtle Man for his appearance in a viral YouTube video . For four seasons, the series documented Brown’s animal removal business, following him as he went to people’s homes and businesses to catch racoons, possums, snakes and other vermin.

In July 2012, the show set a then-record of 1.6 million viewers in a single weekend, according to a press release published at the time on the Animal Planet channel’s website.

Between 2012 and 2014, the popular TV programme Here Comes Honey Boo Boo told the story of Alana Thompson, a child competitor from the reality show Toddlers and Tiaras, and her family in the southern state of Georgia.

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The show, which played on offensive tropes about obesity, poverty and the supposed ignorance of poor communities, was cancelled in 2014. Yet, at its peak it attracted more than 2.2 million viewers.

In 2004, the popular comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) introduced a skit called Appalachian Emergency Room, which drew on stereotypes of Appalachians as uniformly poor, uneducated and dirty.

Further back still, the 1973 film Deliverance – starring John Voight and Burt Reynolds, among others – tells the tale of four Atlanta men who wind up separated while canoeing in the northern Georgia Appalachia region. While trying to find their companions, two of the story’s protagonists are captured by local Appalachian men who proceed to rape one of them.

More recently, a series of articles in mainstream US newspapers and media outlets have deemed Appalachia as “Trump country”.

Last month, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen visited Paris, Kentucky, writing a portrayal of the region as almost homogenously right-wing. “Now Kentuckians are clambering aboard the Trump train – and to heck with its destination,” Cohen wrote.

Evoking sweeping generalisations, he continued: “The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character – a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness – resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country and cussedness are core values.”

Similar stories have appeared on NBC, the Associated Press and Vanity Fair, among others.

“It’s about basically making the argument that poor white people in the mountains uncritically support Donald Trump, that it’s a bastion of racism and uncritical politics,” Eric says.

In September, The Atlantic published an analysis of data on Trump supporters. Though nine out of every 10 supporters were white, the analysis concluded: “Only 23 percent of Trump’s white, non-college-educated voters make less than $50,000 a year.” 

For his part, Eric argues that Trump represents the interests of America’s wealthiest class even if he commands high support among the middle class and a fair, if exaggerated, degree of support among working-class whites. “The people responsible for Donald Trump are on Wall Street – not the poor people in Appalachia.”

The grounds of a former coal mine in neighbouring Breathitt County [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
The grounds of a former coal mine in neighbouring Breathitt County [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Cleda Turner: ‘There’s no such thing as equality’

Despite the many challenges, several Booneville locals have dedicated their lives to the betterment of their community.

Sitting in the Ole Bus Stop Diner, 67-year-old Lora Turner spins her coffee mug on the table as she speaks.

Born and raised in Booneville, Lora spent the past 33 years working with churches from across the country who come to Owsley County to help build homes for poor families. She keeps a list of families and children who need housing, clothes, medicine, food and other necessities, coordinating with churches to distribute the goods.

“We lived up here in a hollow and were very poor,” she says, adding that she was one of 11 children. “We didn’t have no electricity till I was 14 years old, but we learned to appreciate the good things in life.”

Speaking over the chatter of the cafe and the clatter of dishes, Lora says 133 volunteers came from a Pittsburg church to help build three homes for families in Booneville this past summer. “We got good people here.”

Around the corner in a shop-turned-donation centre, 68-year-old Cleda Turner fills backpacks with food and medicine for children as part of a programme run by her NGO, Owsley County Outreach. A pair of cats sleep next to one another on the shelf behind her.

After living in Lexington for 37 years, Cleda and her husband came back to Booneville. After working with soup kitchens and church charities in the city, she says she was saddened to find a lack of services for hungry children.

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In 2007, she registered the NGO and focused her efforts on the Food Backpack Programme. Because many children from low-income families only have access to proper meals at the school cafeteria, the programme provides them with food packs to last the duration of a weekend.

“There’s little or no food in their homes on the weekend,” Cleda says, explaining that she and two other volunteers deliver to the local schools an average of 180 food packs for children each Friday.

The programme hasn’t been without its challenges. When she first started, Cleda would give the children canvas backpacks full of food that they had to return at the end of the weekend. “We wanted to teach them responsibility, you know,” she recalls.

But during the first month, she noticed that the returned bags had been chewed on by what appeared to be rats or mice. “Some of the homes don’t even have floors,” she says by way of explanation.

Yet more barriers have arisen in recent years due to a volatile combination of no work, no opportunities and little hope leaving  Booneville to grapple with a surge in drug use, namely prescription-strength painkillers and methamphetamines.

Cleda learned how prevalent methamphetamines were the hard way. A few months into the Food Backpack Programme, she found herself feeling increasingly ill. “I was achy and had headaches. I was just in the most awful shape I ever was,” she says. After a doctor told her that she had been exposed to methamphetamine residue, she started using plastic grocery bags in place of the canvas sacks.

Though Cleda considers the NGO’s efforts a success, she argues that there needs to be a structural change to address the devastating poverty and hunger gripping places like Booneville.

“You would think America can do that, but America has forgotten about the children,” she says. “It’s getting worse, and worse, and worse … You’re going to always have your haves and have-nots in this country. It’s because there’s no such thing as equality.”

Cleda Turner, 68, founded an NGO and focused her efforts on the Food Backpack Programme  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]
Cleda Turner, 68, founded an NGO and focused her efforts on the Food Backpack Programme  [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/Al Jazeera]

Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_ 

Source: Al Jazeera