The White Ghetto
In Appalachia the country is beautiful and the society is broken.

“The draw,” the monthly welfare checks that supplement dependents’ earnings in the black-market Pepsi economy, is poison. It’s a potent enough poison to catch the attention even of such people as those who write for the New York Times. Nicholas Kristof, visiting nearby Jackson, Ky., last year, was shocked by parents who were taking their children out of literacy classes because the possibility of improved academic performance would threaten $700-a-month Social Security disability benefits, which increasingly are paid out for nebulous afflictions such as loosely defined learning disorders. “This is painful for a liberal to admit,” Kristof wrote, “but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”

There is much here to confound conservatives, too. Jim DeMint likes to say that marriage is our best anti-poverty program, and he also has a point. But a 2004 study found that the majority of impoverished households in Appalachia were headed by married couples, not single mothers. Getting and staying married is not a surefire prophylactic against poverty. Neither are prophylactics. Kentucky has a higher teen-motherhood rate than the national average, but not radically so, and its young mothers are more likely to be married. Kentucky is No. 19 in the ranking of states by teen pregnancy rates, but it is No. 8 when it comes to teen birth rates, according to the Guttmacher Institute, its young women being somewhat less savage than most of their counterparts across the country. Kentucky and West Virginia have abortion rates that are one-fourth those of Rhode Island or Connecticut, and one-fifth that of Florida. More marriage, less abortion: Not exactly the sort of thing out of which conservative indictments are made. But marriage is less economically valuable, at least to men, in Appalachia – like their counterparts elsewhere, married men here earn more than their unmarried counterparts, but the difference is smaller and declining.

In effect, welfare has made Appalachia into a big and sparsely populated housing project — too backward to thrive, but just comfortable enough to keep the underclass in place. There is no cure for poverty, because there is no cause of poverty — poverty is the natural condition of the human animal. It is not as though labor and enterprise are unknown here: Digging coal is hard work, farming is hard work, timbering is hard work — so hard that the best and brightest long ago packed up for Cincinnati or Pittsburgh or Memphis or Houston. There is to this day an Appalachian bar in Detroit and ex-Appalachian enclaves around the country. The lesson of the Big White Ghetto is the same as the lessons we learned about the urban housing projects in the late 20th century: The best public-policy treatment we have for poverty is dilution. But like the old project towers, the Appalachian draw culture produces concentration, a socio­economic Salton Sea that becomes more toxic every year.

“The government gives people checks, but nobody teaches them how to live,” says Teresa Barrett, a former high-school principal who now publishes the Owsley County newspaper. “You have people on the draw getting $3,000 a month, and they still can’t live. When I was at the school, we’d see kids come in from a long weekend just starved to death. But you’ll see those parents at the grocery store with their 15 cases of Pepsi, and that’s all they’ve got in the buggy — you know what they’re doing. Everybody knows, nobody does anything. And when you have that many people on the draw, that’s a big majority of voters.”

Her advice to young people is to study for degrees that will help them get jobs in the schools or at the local nursing home — or get out. “I would move in a heartbeat,” she says, but she stays for family reasons.

Speaking in the Rose Garden in March of 1965, Lyndon Johnson had high hopes for his Appalachia Bill. “This legislation marks the end of an era of partisan cynicism towards human want and misery. The dole is dead. The pork barrel is gone. Federal and state, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, Americans of these times are concerned with the outcome of the next generation, not the next election. . . . The bill that I will now sign will work no miracles overnight. Whether it works at all depends not upon the federal government alone but the states and the local governments as well.” The dole, as it turns out, is deathless, and the pork barrel has merely been reincarnated as a case of Pepsi. President Johnson left out of his calculations the factor that is almost always overlooked by populists: the people.

*   *   *

There is another Booneville, this one in northern Mississippi, just within the cultural orbit of Memphis and a stone’s throw from the two-room shack in which was born Elvis Presley, the Appalachian Adonis. There’s a lot of Big White Ghetto between them, trailers and rickety homes heated with wood stoves, the post-industrial ruins of old mills and small factories with their hard 1970s lines that always make me think of the name of the German musical group Einstürzende Neubauten — “collapsing modern buildings.” (Some things just sound more appropriate in German.) You swerve to miss deer on the country roads, see the rusted hulk of a 1937 Dodge sedan nestled against a house and wonder if somebody was once planning to restore it – or if somebody just left it there on his way to Detroit. You see the clichés: cars up on cinderblocks, to be sure, but houses up on cinderblocks, too. And you get a sense of the enduring isolation of some of these little communities: About 20 miles from Williamsburg, Ky., I become suspicious that I have not selected the easiest route to get where I’m going, and stop and ask a woman what the easiest way to get to Williamsburg is. “You’re a hell of a long way from Virginia,” she answers. I tell her I’m looking for Williamsburg, Kentucky, and she says she’s never heard of it. It’s about the third town over, the nearest settlement of any interest, and it’s where you get on the interstate to go up to Lexington or down to Knoxville. “I went to Hazard once,” she offers. The local economic-development authorities say that the answer to Appalachia’s problems is sending more people to college. Sending them to Nashville might be a start.

Eventually, I find my road. You run out of Big White Ghetto pretty quickly, and soon you are among the splendid farms and tall straight trees of northern Mississippi. Appalachia pretty well fades away after Tupelo, and the Mississippi River begins to assert its cultural force. Memphis is only a half-hour’s drive away, but it feels like a different sort of civilization – another ghetto, but a ghetto of a different sort. And if you stand in front of the First Baptist Church on Beale Street and look over your shoulder back toward the mountains, you don’t see the ghost of Elvis or Devil Anse or Daniel Boone – you see a big sign that says “Wonder Bread,” cheap and white and empty and as good an epitaph as any for what remains left behind in those hills and hollows, waiting on the draw and trying not to think too hard about what the real odds are on the lotto or an early death.

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review. This article originally appeared in the December 16, 2013, issue of National Review.