One of those communities is Beattyville, recorded by a US census survey as the poorest white town – 98% of its 1,700 residents are white – in the country. It was also by one measure – the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2008-2012 of communities of more than 1,000 people, the latest statistics available at the time of reporting – among the four lowest income towns in the country. It is the first stop for a series of dispatches by the Guardian about the lives of those trying to do more than survive in places that seem the most remote from the aspirations and possibilities of the American Dream.
Karen Jennings patted her heavily made up face, put on a sardonic smile and said she thought she looked good after all she’d been through.
“I was an alcoholic first. I got drunk and fell in the creek and broke my back. Then I got hooked on the painkillers,” the 59-year-old grandmother said.
Over the years, Jennings’ back healed but her addiction to powerful opioids remained. After the prescriptions dried up, she was drawn to the underground drug trade that defines eastern Kentucky today as coal, oil and timber once did.
Jennings spoke with startling frankness about her part in a plague gripping the isolated, fading towns dotting this part of Appalachia. Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids – “hillbilly heroin” to those who use them. It’s a dependency bound up with economic despair and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic collapse across much of eastern Kentucky. It’s a crisis that crosses generations.
(One of the abandoned houses along Crystal Creek, Beattyville. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian )
Eastern Kentucky falls within that part of Appalachia that has come to epitomise the white underclass in America ever since president Lyndon Johnson sat down on the porch of a wood cabin in the small town of Inez in 1964 and made it the face of his War on Poverty.
The president arrived virtually unannounced at the home of Tom Fletcher, a 38-year-old former coalminer who had not held a full-time job in two years and was struggling to feed eight children. The visit offered the rest of the US a disturbing glimpse into a largely hidden world where houses routinely lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, and children habitually failed to get enough to eat. The 1960 census records that one in five adults in the region could neither read nor write.
Half a century later, while poverty levels have fallen dramatically in some other parts of the country in good part thanks to Johnson, the economic gap between the region and much of the rest of America is as wide. And its deprivation is once again largely invisible to most of the country.
Beattyville’s median household income is just $12,361 (about £8,000) a year, placing it as the third lowest income town in the US, according to that Census Bureau 2008-12 survey.
Nationally, the median household income was $53,915 in 2012. In real terms, the income of people in Beattyville is lower than it was in 1980.
The town’s poverty rate is 44% above the national average. Half of its families live below the poverty line. That includes three-quarters of those with children, with the attendant consequences. More than one-third of teenagers drop out of high school or leave without graduating. Just 5% of residents have college degrees.
Surrounding communities are little better. Beattyville is the capital of Lee County, named after the commander of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia in the civil war, General Robert E Lee.
Five of the 10 poorest counties in the US run in a line through eastern Kentucky and they include Lee County. Life expectancy in the county is among the worst in the US, which is not unconnected to the fact that more than half the population is obese. Men lived an average of just 68.3 years in 2013, a little more than eight years short of the national average. Women lived 76.4 years on average, about five years short of national life expectancy.
Read the complete article at The Guardian newspaper link here.