In the first of a series “about the lives of those trying to do more than survive in places that seem the most remote from the aspirations and possibilities of the American Dream,” The Guardian visits the eastern Kentucky Appalachian coal mining town of Beattyville hailed as the poorest white town in America and one of the poorest overall, Chris McGreal reports for The Guardian. The town of 1,700 has a median household income of $12,361 — well below the national average of $53,046 — making it the third lowest income town in the U.S. Half of families live below the poverty line. Overall, Lee County has a 33.1 percent high school dropout rate, and only 3.8 percent of residents have a bachelor’s degree.
“Five of the 10 poorest counties in the U.S. run in a line through eastern Kentucky, and they include Lee County,” McGreal writes. “Life expectancy in the county is among the worst in the U.S., which is not unconnected to the fact that more than half the population is obese. Men lived an average of just 68.3 years in 2013, a little more than eight years short of the national average. Women lived 76.4 years on average, about five years short of national life expectancy.”
With many coal jobs long gone, “the largest employer in the county is now the school system,” McGreal writes. “There are five times as many healthcare workers in eastern Kentucky as miners. Coal country is today little more than a cultural identity.” The few remaining mines of Ed Courier’s Sturgeon Mining Company involve people digging coal out of hillsides. He told McGreal, “I’ve been in the coal business since ’78, and the last five years I’ve been trying to get out of the coal business. There’s no future for it here … Things were really good when I came here in ’72, and I ended up staying. When I came here there were three new car dealerships. There hasn’t been a new car dealership here since ’89. There’s no future here. I have a sense of sadness. I wish people had a better life.”
Lee County was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s poverty tours during his War on Poverty 50 years ago, McGreal writes. Local resident Vivian Lunsford told McGreal, “Our homeless situation is really different to a big city. Its couch surfing. You’ve got lower income people, grandparents with their children and spouses living there with the grandchildren. They’re all crammed into this one house. There’s a lot of them.”
Dee Davis, whose family was from Lee County, and now heads the Center for Rural Strategies, told McGreal, “There’s this feeling here like people are looking down on you. Feeling like it’s OK to laugh at you, to pity you. You’re not on the same common ground for comparison as someone who’s better off or living in a better place. That doesn’t mean it’s always true; it just means we feel that burden quickly. We’re primed to react to people we think are looking down on us. That they judge us for our clothes, judge us for our car, judge us for our income, the way we talk.”
Since the 1960s stereotypes of the area have shifted away from “The Beverly Hillbillies” attitude to one of rampant prescription drug abuse, McGreal writes. “In 2013, drug overdoses accounted for 56 percent of all accidental deaths in Kentucky” with numbers even higher in eastern Kentucky. Steve Mays, Lee County’s judge executive, told McGreal, “When I worked as a police officer and chief there were drugs here, and we made a lot of busts, but things are getting worse.”
“We don’t have a lot of jobs here. Some people look for a way out,” he said. “They haven’t accomplished what they wanted to, and they’re just looking for that escape, I guess. They get that high, and once it gets a hold of you they have a hard time getting away from it. They don’t think the future looks good for them, or they don’t feel there’s any hope, so they continue to stay on that drugs. It’s people of all ages. You feel sorry for them. Good people. It takes their lives over. They do things you wouldn’t normally think they’d do. Stealing, writing bad checks, younger girls prostitute themselves out for drugs.”
The Rural Blog is published by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.