Life is harsh in Twin Branch, W. Va. Despite the wide availability of food stamps, government-subsidized health care and school lunches, life is very difficult for most of the people living there. The War on Poverty, instituted by Lyndon Johnson 50 years ago, brought a lot of help to this area of the U.S., yet life is no better now, and indeed for many, worse than before that “War.”
Trip Gabriel at The New York Times takes a look at the bleak economic landscape here. Despite all the government subsidies, this place is sad.
McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.
Much of McDowell County looks like a rural Detroit, with broken windows on shuttered businesses and homes crumbling from neglect. In many places, little seems to have been built or maintained in decades.
Numbers tell the tale as vividly as the scarred landscape. Forty-six percent of children in the county do not live with a biological parent, according to the school district. Their mothers and fathers are in jail, are dead or have left them to be raised by relatives, said Gordon Lambert, president of the McDowell County Commission.
Did you catch that? “Forty-six percent of children in this county do not live with a biological parent.” That’s an awful fact. The sheriff in the county attributes this to drugs, saying the drug trade and the addiction that follows decimates families. The lack of jobs is a giant obstacle for many here; the area was known for coal-mining and lumber, and most of those jobs are simply gone. Now, many rely on the government to get by, but that has come at a terrible price.
Nearly 47 percent of personal income in the county is from Social Security, disability insurance, food stamps and other federal programs.
But residents also identify a more insidious cause of the current social unraveling: the disappearance of the only good jobs they ever knew, in coal mining. The county was always poor. Yet family breakup did not become a calamity until the 1990s, after southern West Virginia lost its major mines in the downturn of the American steel industry. The poverty rate, 50 percent in 1960, declined — partly as a result of federal benefits — to 36 percent in 1970 and to 23.5 percent in 1980. But it soared to nearly 38 percent in 1990. For families with children, it now nears 41 percent.
Attempts are being made to bring in new jobs. A prison has been built, but many local residents can’t pass the drug test required to get a job there.
There are no quick-and-easy answers to the deeply-entrenched issues of this part of our country, but one thing is for sure: you can’t pay people to get out of poverty.