In the Midst of Poverty, People’s Stories are Hard to Tell
Small Staffs, Lack of Resources, and Families’ Fear of Reprisals Add to Difficulties in Coverage
Twenty-one Appalachian counties lie along or near eastern Kentucky’s border with Virginia. It was the people who live here who gained national attention in the early 1960’s when New York Times reporter Homer Bigart came to the Kentucky mountains and reported what he saw and heard. Bigart was drawn to eastern Kentucky by the book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area,” written by Harry M. Caudill, an attorney who grew up in one of those counties and came back home to practice law.
What Bigart saw and reported became fodder for policy discussions in the Kennedy White House when the first of his articles appeared on a Sunday in October 1963. President Kennedy moved immediately to get help into the area, and those 21 counties later became a principal focus of President Johnson’s War on Poverty. In the nearly 35 years since that war was declared, many things have changed for the better. But much of the deep poverty and the consequences it brings to families who experience it remains.
The Kentucky State Data Center in Louisville, which keeps track of population and social circumstances that the census tracks, reported in April that the poverty rate had decreased in all but one of these 21 Appalachian counties from 1989 to 1995. The center keeps records by groups of counties known as “area development districts” (ADD), and the 21 counties are divided into three such districts. The decreases are not large—one percent in one ADD, 2.5 percent in another and 2.7 percent in the third—but at least they are decreases. During this same period the median household income rose by more than $6,000 in each development district.
Beneath those statistics there lies a continuing thread to the stories that Bigart uncovered. In these three districts live nearly one quarter of Kentuckians whose incomes place them at poverty level or below. In 1989 the total was 165,856 persons, or 24 percent of all state residents in poverty, and in 1995 it was 162,496, or 23.5 percent of the state number. And four of the five Kentucky counties with the highest percentages of residents at poverty level are included in these districts. Three of these counties are included in the Kentucky River ADD, which has an overall poverty level of 33.6 percent, the highest of any development district in the state.
In Owsley County, the state’s poorest, 46.6 percent of all residents and 65.4 percent of residents under 18 are considered to be living at poverty level or below. In adjoining Lee County, 39.1 percent of all persons and 54.7 percent of those under 18 are poor. In Wolfe County, which lies next to Lee County, 38.9 percent of all residents and 57.2 percent of all under 18 live at poverty level or below. Magoffin County, the fourth in this group, is a part of the Big Sandy district; 38 percent of all its residents are considered to be in poverty and 51.2 percent of those under 18.
In January, payments to families in Kentucky’s Transitional Assistance Program (K-TAP), formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), averaged $224.15 per family, or $94.69 per person. All of these families are past the first 30 months of the five-year period during which they can receive their lifetime allotment of welfare money. State family services workers in public assistance programs in all 21 counties are trying to find ways of getting jobs for these families when their five-year transition period ends. Committees which include workers for the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children and interested private citizens are meeting frequently to look at possible solutions, but so far the results are discouraging. In my county, Letcher County, a new data entry company has set up shop and has hired some workers who were receiving KTAP money. But those 15 jobs represent only 2.3 percent of the 680 families in the K-TAP program in this one county. The question now is what to do about the other 97.7 percent.
Two years ago, a group of citizens in Letcher County, where I live, got together to write a proposal to the state Cabinet for Families and Children on how welfare reform might be carried out in our county. I was not a part of that group, but The Mountain Eagle, the local weekly newspaper that my husband and I have published for the past 42 years, carried the proposal in full. And since its publication, we have followed its slow progress. The group spent five months developing the plan, which was completed in October 1997. The planners had three goals: to create a diversified, strong local economy, to find new ways of attracting capital into the county, and to assure a better way of life for Letcher county children.
The plan proposed a new local credit union to help low-income families; a new small business technology cooperative specializing in digital service industries; a business development network using retired and active businesspeople as trainers; a program to train people to repair existing homes and to build new ones; more child-care services, which also could train welfare mothers to care for other people’s children in their own homes; classes to move welfare recipients into jobs in the health care industry; creation of wood industry jobs by expanding existing businesses or helping people create new ones to use the area’s large supply of timber, and establishment of a “one-stop shopping center” where welfare recipients trying to make it on their own could get help with counseling, education, job placement and other services.
A representative of the state Cabinet for Families and Children has promised to come to Letcher County soon to look at possible quarters for the one-stop center. The other proposals in the plan are still being discussed. Meanwhile, several groups of interested citizens have been meeting every month with the state workers responsible for getting the 680 families in our county off welfare and into some kind of work.
The fundamental problem is that the jobs are not here, and the families are not equipped to move away. One group of local businessmen is meeting every month to look at possible job development. Another group of church and welfare workers and interested citizens meets to look at problems and possibilities; I have attended most of this group’s meetings. The Eagle tries to keep up also with what the businessmen’s group is doing, but it meets on Monday night, which is deadline night at the newspaper, and we can’t always free someone to attend.
This problem of small staffs and little time is one that was cited frequently by editors and writers at other eastern Kentucky newspapers when I called to find out what problems they were having in covering welfare reform. Most of the papers are weekly; a few publish two or three issues a week. There are two small dailies. When I asked whether papers had provided coverage and if they had any difficulties getting information, these were some of the responses:
“We haven’t covered it as much as we should. We’ve included all the wire-service [AP] stories. It’s hard to get a local angle and we’re kind of short-staffed. In the near future we’re going to do an in-depth story on it.”
“No, not really. That’s on my list. It takes so much personal research.”
“A lot of people in our area are shifting from AFDC to SSI (Supplemental Security Income). It doesn’t have any cutoff date.” (We agreed that we admired their ingenuity.)
“I don’t expect we’ll get people complaining to us until the [five-year] deadline gets nearer.”
“We’ve had a little coverage, but nothing lately, nothing we have generated. It’s difficult to devote reporter time. We don’t have enough staff to give time or attention to issues beyond breaking news. It’s sad to say when there are so many people involved, but it’s hit or miss with us.”
“We have an interest in it, but have we covered anything? Not really. I would want to devote study to it. Local people here are afraid to have their names out.”
“It’s hard to get much out of the local social services department, but we have done some coverage on a welfare-to-work program and the area development district has been very helpful to us. We have only two people, and we haven’t had much time to devote to it.”
“We have stayed on top of Vision 2000, but information from that is a lot lighter now. They’ve let up on what they’re sending us.” (Vision 2000 is a state-set standard for local welfare reform efforts.)
“We’ve had a couple of stories, but our coverage has been kind of limited. The biggest problem is that some people don’t want to be identified. We don’t get a lot of releases from the local agencies, and also we’re limited on space.”
“I have found people very willing to talk and give information.”
“To tell you the truth, we haven’t really tried.”
“We’ve done a few stories. We’ve talked with people who would lose their welfare and what alternatives they might have. We’ve also used AP stories. We should probably deal with it more than we have. It seems always to be there.”
“We haven’t run into too much of a problem. We’ve been to two years of meetings. We got into doing that and have been fairly successful in getting most of the information we’ve needed. Last year in our ‘progress edition’ we did a whole section on welfare reform. We haven’t done too much lately.”
“Cover welfare reform? Not really, other than releases. I hadn’t even thought to check into that.”
The Wall Street Journal recently carried a long, moving article describing the trials of one eastern Kentucky woman who accepted a grant from the state of Kentucky and relocated to the Cincinnati area after receiving training in her home area. That article, which followed the woman and her family over an entire year, would have filled a large part of the news space in any eastern Kentucky weekly and certainly took more time, energy and money than small county newspapers can afford.
A reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently spent a week in Letcher County looking at welfare reform issues and other aspects of eastern Kentucky life. He did this story as part of a series of articles about the 35th anniversary of the War on Poverty. He also had ample time and resources to assemble the information he needed.
The Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest daily, recently completed a six-month study of welfare reform in eastern Kentucky and published the results in a three-day series titled “Welfare Dilemma in Eastern Kentucky.” In the paper’s issues of May 2, 3 and 4, that series took up a total of eight and a fourth full-size newspaper pages. It required two reporters, a photographer and a graphics artist. The small newspapers in eastern Kentucky do not have the resources to provide that kind of coverage.
A reporter for a large Kentucky daily newspaper said it was difficult to find welfare recipients to be interviewed for feature stories on the problems or the successes of welfare reform. Cooperation from local offices of the state welfare system was not good. Local state employees were not willing to ask questions of recipients and relay information to reporters. Recipients were afraid to talk to reporters and didn’t want their pictures taken. State welfare officials were upset by questions from news reporters and tended to be “a little bit defensive.”
In eastern Kentucky jobs are scarce for everybody and especially for untrained or inexperienced workers. “You can’t put a person in training on how to work a mop for five years,” the reporter at this large Kentucky paper pointed out. “It’s a national issue. State officials shouldn’t be so thin-skinned.” In one instance, this reporter had been talking with a welfare recipient for some time about her problems, but after a call from an official in the Cabinet for Families and Children in Frankfort (our state capital) the woman would no longer return the reporter’s telephone calls. Presumably she had been told by someone in the state or local welfare office that she should not talk with reporters.
Fear of losing jobs or benefit checks is not new to people in the Kentucky mountains. For many years local politicians and/or coal company officials had almost total control over the lives of many mountain families. A coal miner who did or said something his bosses didn’t like could find his furniture out on the street when he returned to his company-owned house. For many years, local political powers had a major say about who received welfare—and who didn’t. Those lessons were absorbed quickly and thoroughly. Tales about such punishment perhaps have become embellished over the years, but they continue to affect mountain residents’ actions.
Welfare recipients who live here have good reason to be hesitant about talking to reporters. It’s part of the legacy of their forebears’ lives and circumstances, but it does make it difficult for those who genuinely want to learn about their situation and tell others so that positive changes can occur, as Bigart’s effort shows they can.
Pat Gish has lived in Letcher County for the past 42 years. She grew up in central Kentucky and her husband, Tom, grew up in a Letcher County coal camp. Married since 1948, they bought The Mountain Eagle in 1957, a weekly which they and their children still operate.