Appalachian Poverty: Still an uphill battle

There is hunger here again - hunger for work, and, for a growing number of Appalachian families, a hunger for better housing, clothing, and in some cases more adequate food.

Neither hunger is evident to someone driving through this mountainous area on the main, but potholed, roads. Attractive, though usually modest, brick or aluminum-siding homes line the roads; yards are well trimmed; several cars sit in most driveways.

Times were good for many in the 1970s. This is coal country, and coal was being dug with a fervor in the wake of the nation's new concern about overdependence on foreign oil.

And for the poor, the federal War on Poverty, launched in the middle '60s by then President Johnson, started a flow of federal dollars to this region and other parts of the country beginning in the mid-1960s. In addition, new roads, clinics, and water lines were built.

Poverty rates fell in Appalachia from about 31 percent in 1960 to a roughly estimated 15 percent in 1976. Even in central Appalachia (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia) poverty fell from about 54 percent to 25 percent, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission.

But now times are tough again. Miners still working earn $100 a day or more. But thousands of miners and others are out of work in this area. Among other things, Americans are buying fewer cars, so less coal is needed to fire giant steel plants that make parts for the auto industry.

There is another force at work here. Led by President Reagan, the federal government is cutting back on assistance to the poor. From the perspective of many in Washington, the effort to cut federal spending makes sense. It'll reduce huge deficits, lower interest rates, and thus help the economy pick up.

But back in the ''hollers,'' as the narrow valleys are called here in the heart of Appalachia, the cutbacks and tightening of federal programs for the poor are causing bewilderment, confusion, and, often, suffering. ''They're trying to balance the budget on the backs of the poor people,'' says disabled auto mechanic John Handshoe, who grew up in this remote part of eastern Kentucky.

Eula Hall, a social worker for the past 20 years in this area, says: ''The cutbacks are killing people. He (the President) started with the poorest of the poor. He could cut down some on defense.''

Mrs. Hall and later another longtime resident here took this reporter to visit some of the people caught in the tightening grip of loss of jobs on the one hand and low-and-dwindling federal help on the other.

Thomas Tucker is one of those people. Wearing a worn pair of tennis shoes, old slacks, and a blue dress shirt, he stands tall and looks you in the eye.

''I have had my lights off too much. I can't earn enough to get them turned on,'' he says. ''I never seen a worse time than I see now.''

Since the electric company cut him off, he has had no way to keep food cold, so he and his wife and three children have been eating a lot of soup and sandwiches. Mr. Tucker and his family are trying to get along on $270 a month worth of food stamps - their only income except for a federal rent and utility subsidy.

Last winter he was laid off his minimum wage ($3.35 an hour) job with a gas company. In April his unemployment benefits ran out. The federal government pays his $262 monthly rent for the trailer and pays $73 a month toward his utility bill. But last winter, the utility bills were high ($120 for one month) and now he is $363.19 behind, and without electricity. Social worker Hall is worried about food spoiling without refrigeration. And there are other families around here without electricity, she says.

Tucker says he has gone all over this and the adjacent county looking for work. ''There just ain't any.'' What kind of work will he take? ''Any kind, as long as I can feed my family.''

''With the help of God, it may get better,'' he says, with a look of deep frustration that seems edged with fear.

Last year some $2 billion was cut from the food-stamp program. This ended benefits for nearly 1 million people and reduced them for almost everyone else, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. On Aug. 18, Congress approved another $1.9 billion cut in food stamps.

Under last year's cut, food stamps remain pegged to 1980 prices. Those who work lose a related amount of benefits, but many here feel they must take any odd jobs they can find, such as weed cutting, to survive.

Last year, federal funding for low-income energy assistance was cut $100 million and future increases in the program were banned, in spite of rising energy costs. Energy bills consume one-fourth to one-third of the entire income of low-income families, compared with one-tenth for the average American family, according to one estimate.

Matt and Roda White still have electricity - but are falling behind in paying their bills.

Until last September, Mr. White was receiving $1,057 a month in federal disability payments. But then he was cut off - the result of one of many federal reviews of disability cases under way across the United States. After he requested a hearing, an administrative law judge of the Department of Health and Human Services agreed that he merited the disability payments he had been getting for seven years. But an appeals council with HHS ruled against him, says Mrs. Hall. White is appealing to the courts with the help of the federally funded legal services program for the poor - a program President Reagan is trying to halt.

Mrs. Hall notes a pattern that may be occurring elsewhere: HHS decisions in favor of disabled workers being paid disability are being overruled, more than she can ever recall, by HHS review boards. A spokesman for the department, however, said it was his understanding that the reversal rate has dropped over the last couple of years. He pointed out that under 1980 legislation the department is reviewing more disability cases than ever before, as many as 600, 000 this year.

Today the Whites and one child live on $183 a month in food stamps and $188 a month in federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children. AFDC is one of the targets on the Reagan administration's budget-cut list. Last year's cuts will result in termination of AFDC benefits for some 400,000 families and reductions in benefits for another 250,000 families, according to the Center on Budget Policy Priorities. No state pays enough in food stamps and AFDC combined to raise a family above the federal poverty line, and in 15 states AFDC benefits for a family of three with no other income is less than $250 a month, says a center report.

Mrs. White's AFDC benefits were begun after her husband lost his disability payments, but to get them the family had to ''fight the bureaucracy,'' the Whites say. They rent a home that apparently does not meet federal standards to qualify for rent subsidy. Mixed in among the many adequate homes in this area are others that lack plumbing and some without electricity.

''My little boy needs shoes for school,'' says Mrs. White, as we talked outside their home. ''I just can't buy him no clothes. So many other kids make fun of him.'' Coal trucks roar by interrupting the conversation. The Whites are also trying to keep up with furniture payments of $70 a month and utilities. ''I don't know what would be best - to lose my furniture or electricity,'' says Mr. White.

Facing such decisions is just one of the tough issues surfacing as a result of conditions here. In a trailer serving temporarily as a clinic for this rural area, Dr. Ellen Joyce says an increased number of people are asking for medicine to calm their nerves.

''I see people having to just live on food stamps - and some don't have that, '' she says. ''They borrow from their neighbors and relatives, but I don't see how long that can go on. Their neighbors and relatives are getting in the same shape.''

But important progress has been made here in some respects. Parents are better educated today about nutritional needs of their children, partially as the result of this clinic's work, says Dr. Joyce. The soda machines in some local schools have been removed; snack machines are limited to use after lunch in some schools. But this reporter noted several women feeding their babies soda pop - sometimes diluted with water - in bottles.

But the Mud Creek Clinic is about 40 percent federally funded, and with recent budget cuts, the position of health educator is no longer funded.

There continue to be some cases of child malnutrition here. A baby was brought to the clinic by a mother who had not received her food stamps and had no milk for three to four days. ''We gave her a bottle of milk, and the baby drank it like it was inhaling,'' says Mrs. Hall.

But people are pulling together as they do here in tough times. ''We won't let nobody starve here,'' says Mrs. Hall, whose ''social work office'' is one corner of the trailer clinic.

The regular Mud Creek Clinic burned down recently, but neighbors and local coal operators and other businessmen have raised some $40,000 - about half of what is needed - to relocate and rebuild. And recently, when the deaf-mute teen-age daughter of a local minister disappeared, more than 40 people turned out to look for her. She was found within a few hours, safe at a friend's house.

''You can call on a neighbor - and he's there,'' says the minister, The Rev. Freddie Kidd.

Mr. Kidd also runs a grocery store. His business is another indicator of the decline in prosperity here. He is selling less snack food, a luxury, than usual, and on July 4 much of his stock of hamburgers and hot dogs went unsold.

Geneva Hunter tries to have wholesome meals - meat and vegetables - on the table for her family of six (including her husband, three children, and a grandson). But total income is $790 a month from food stamps, AFDC, and her husband's federal disability payments.

The family has run up a debt of more than $500 at a local grocery, she explains, as we sit on the tiny porch of their crowded, single-width trailer, which is perched on the edge of a steep hill. A few feet away, a rooster makes a loud racket until shooed away. A row of gaily colored towels dry on a nearby washline. Next door, her brother's home is being finished by volunteers from the Appalachia Service Project, a church effort under way in a number of states. High school students on summer vacation are singing and talking as they work hard plastering in the two-story home. The owner of the home is beaming, and working with them. He could never get the money together to finish the house without this help, he says.

Mrs. Hunter says: ''We could do with some more help here - but we'll make do.'' She invites President Reagan to come live as people here do to see what it is like. ''I'll feed him,'' she offers with a smile.

There is strong pride here in getting by. And the search for work by those able to work is a continuing one. Some, like Lola Newsome, find it. She has landed a $3.60-an-hour job at a discount store. With that and her husband's disability payment ($121 a month) ''we can make it,'' she says. She has not reapplied for AFDC to see if she is eligible for some because ''maybe there's somebody that needs it a lot more than we do.''

The sharing instinct runs deep her in the hollers. Everett Newsome is an example. He and his wife and four children live on $640 a month from food stamps and workmen's compensation. Their two-bedroom home has a bed in the living room, and there is no indoor water. Mrs. Newsome washes dishes in a pan in the kitchen. Water is drawn from a well near the front door.

Yet there is no lack of love in the family. The couple laugh and smile at each other's remarks during a midday meal this reporter was invited to. It was a last-minute invitation with no time for special preparation. The meal was pinto beans in a soup, noodles, corn bread, tomatoes, and onions - typical fare for many low-income families around here.

''You can have all you can eat if you can stand it,'' he says good naturedly, as I am leaving, after complimenting Mrs. Newsome on her corn bread, he calls through a doorway: ''Thank the Lord we have what we have.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.