Speak Your Piece: Owsley County Breakdown

When reporters want to cover rural poverty, they head to a former tobacco-growing county in Eastern Kentucky that is the poorest in the nation. With so much room to debate the impact of government programs on poverty, and so many stories to tell, why do leaders and polemicists need to base their arguments on falsehoods and stereotypes? 

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 When national journalists round up the usual suspects for reporting on rural poverty, Owsley County, Kentucky, always makes the line up. The county is the poorest in the nation.

So it’s not surprising to see Owsley County crop up in recent pieces touching on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Owsley has the lowest household income in the nation. It’s a natural place to go to illustrate the impact of poverty in rural America.

Unfortunately, it’s also a place where folks get the story wrong. In one case last week, the error is from a local elected official. In another it’s an ideologue who knew the story he wanted to tell long before he set foot in Eastern Kentucky.

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First, the local official:

The legacy of the War on Poverty is open for debate. Basic economic data is not.

In an Associated Press article Sunday about the impact of food stamp cuts, state Sen. Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, says the War on Poverty has failed because there is more poverty today than there was before the federal government launched its “war.”

“If you had extreme poverty 50 years ago and you continue to have extreme poverty 50 years from then, and probably maybe even more poverty, can you sit here and say it has quantifiable measurements of success?” Stivers said. “And I think the numbers would tell you it probably has not been a success.” (Emphasis added.)

Actually, in Owsley County (part of Stivers’ district) there’s dramatically less poverty now than there was before the War on Poverty.

In 1960 74.8% of Owsley County residents lived below the poverty line, according to the Census. In 2011, the poverty rate in Owsley was 41% — still an astonishingly high number by U.S. standards, but a nearly 34 points lower than the 1960 rate.

You can argue about whether War on Poverty programs are the reason for the decline. And certainly a 41% poverty rate is nothing to brag about.

But let’s at least use facts to inform the debate.

Jason Bailey of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy sets the record straight.

“The absolute level of poverty is better (than it was),” Bailey told the AP. “But, the gap between central Appalachia and the rest of the country has not closed. In a relative sense, it’s just as big.”

Stivers’ and Bailey’s comments were part of a piece on the impact of food stamp cuts on Owsley County reported by the Associated Press.

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Now the partisan press:

The National Review’s Kevin Williamson paints a post-apocalyptic vision of the former tobacco-growing county, complete with the headline “Left Behind.”

He calls Owsley County the “Big White Ghetto.”

“If the people here weren’t 98.5 percent white, we’d call it a reservation,” Williamson says.

Perhaps. And if it Williamson weren’t singling out poor whites for derision, folks would be calling him far more than that.

“Pillbillies,” welfare frauds, prostitutes who trade sex for narcotics or soda pop, and people who’ve never heard the name of the next town over – that seems to be the entire population of Owsley County, according to Williamson. Or at least they’re the only population worth writing about. Those who are doing better economically are simply those who have made “a very short climb to the top of the social pecking order,” he writes.

Anyone worth a lick left a long time ago, making the region a victim of “adverse selection,” he says.

We’re not sure what the purpose of Williamson’s article is, other than to impugn an entire region. 

But Williamson’s portrait omits a lot, including the fact that he’s opened his double-barrelled disparagement on one of the most reliably Republican counties in the United States. Owsley has voted for the GOP candidate about 4 to 1 over the Democrat in each of the last four presidential elections.

But complexities like that don’t fit the stereotype, so they don’t make the story.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.

 

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