Worlds Apart: Poverty and Politics in Rural America, Second Edition

Worlds Apart: Poverty and Politics in Rural America, Second Edition

by Cynthia M. Duncan, Angela Blackwell

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First published in 1999, Worlds Apart examined the nature of poverty through the stories of real people in three remote rural areas of the United States: New England, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta. In this new edition, Duncan returns to her original research, interviewing some of the same people as well as some new key informants. Duncan provides powerful new insights into the dynamics of poverty, politics, and community change.
"Duncan, through in-depth investigation and interviews, concludes that only a strong civic culture, a sense among citizens of community and the need to serve that community, can truly address poverty. . . . Moving and troubling. Duncan has created a remarkable study of the persistent patterns of poverty and power."—Kirkus Reviews

"The descriptions of rural poverty in Worlds Apart are interesting and read almost like a novel."—Choice

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300210514
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 11/25/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Cynthia M. Duncan is founding director of the Carsey Institute for Families and Communities at the University of New Hampshire and research director at AGree, an initiative bringing together diverse interests to transform food and agricultural policy in the United States.

Read an Excerpt

Worlds Apart

Poverty and Politics in Rural America

By Cynthia M. Duncan


Copyright © 2014 Yale University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-21051-4



Rigid Classes and Corrupt Politics in Appalachia's Coal Fields

It is early morning on the last day of June and we are making our way deep into the mountains to Blackwell, an Appalachian coal county long plagued by poverty and labor trouble. An old truck piled high with large chunks of coal, lacking the cover required by law, strains to climb the hill up ahead, slowing our progress. Two new Chevy pickups, gun racks in the windows and dogs in the back, creep impatiently behind the coal truck, followed by an old Ford crowded with grandparents, teenagers, and small children climbing over the seats and peering out the back window. The drivers, holding their first morning Cokes, lean out their windows, anxious for an opportunity to pass.

The hillsides are blanketed in green leaves—the irrepressible kudzu vines start at the road and climb the hills, covering trees, abandoned cars, piles of dumped garbage, and the dilapidated coal tipples of deserted mines. The road dips down to follow a creek bed littered with plastic bottles, rags, washtubs, and other debris, and around the bend a precarious wooden bridge stretches across the creek to a faded trailer and its rusty prefab outbuilding.

As the road rises again to clear the mountain, an old coal camp emerges in the narrow valley below—company housing long since sold to the families who have lived here for generations now. A few houses have bright new aluminum siding and tidy chain-link fences that guard small lawns adorned with yard ornaments and painted tires filled with petunias. These are the homes of retired union miners with good pensions. Other homes are run down, their wooden clapboards peeling and covered in coal soot, children's tricycles and old tires lying in mostly dirt yards. Each small house has a front porch, some with a glider or rocker and hanging begonias, others with discarded washing machines or broken televisions. Overalls and sheets hang on clotheslines, providing hiding places for young children running from each other and their skinny dogs. The narrow, rutted dirt road is partly obstructed by cars parked alongside the houses. Most vehicles are decrepit, but at the end of the road an older couple loads suitcases into the trunk of a new Chrysler with Michigan plates and a Shriner ornament on the rear bumper.

The coal truck turns off the main road toward the railroad tracks, where its coal will be weighed and loaded on a train, and the pickups and old sedan speed ahead. A sprawling, modern, yellow brick home with a carved wooden front door and shiny brass light fixtures sits on the hill to the right. A new red Blazer with a boat trailer is parked at the end of the long, walled driveway, and a rolling lawn stretches to the two-lane highway—all a monument to the fabulous riches a local strip miner amassed during the brief coal boom in the late 1970s. Rounding one last hill before Blackwell's main town, the road widens into four lanes, and down in the valley the two- and three-story buildings marking the county seat are visible above the morning mist hovering over the river.

The new mall built by the Parkers, a leading coal family, is on the left, anchoring a commercial strip along the main highway. Only about half the storefronts facing the parking lot are occupied, and there is no sign of activity this early in the day. On Friday nights the mall parking lot comes alive with cruising teenagers, reminiscent of a scene from the 1950s—bright, recently waxed cars creeping bumper to bumper through the lot, guys calling out to one another and to girls in other cars, honking, music blasting. Just behind the McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants two big discount stores are under construction. Studies by distant marketing firms have confirmed what local merchants have known for decades—this area has a solid captive retail market, including a steady flow of public checks that will be spent locally.

The large regional hospital lies just beyond the mall. It was built in the 1950s by the United Mine Workers union but is now owned and run by a large statewide health corporation. Employment here means a highly desirable union job, no matter whether you work in the cafeteria or out front admitting patients. We're the best-paying employer in the county other than the mines—the unionized mines—when they're working, says a hospital administrator. The hospital employs about three hundred workers, mostly women, and there is little turnover. When there is an opening, the administrator says, it pays to know somebody. It pays to know me. It pays to know the dietary manager, or the housekeeping supervisor, or the maintenance engineer.

Along the stretch of highway before town a few roadside vendors open bedspreads on the hoods of their cars, lay their freshly picked tomatoes and used clothes out neatly, and set up folding chairs where they will spend the day. A teenager nearby, cigarette hanging from his mouth and hands stuffed in his back pockets, uses his boot to nudge the stiff body of a dog killed by a car more than a week ago.

In the early morning light, the imposing stone courthouse that dominates the square in the center of town casts a shadow on the World War I memorial. The young men from Blackwell are renowned for their bravery in foreign wars and for their strong work ethic in urban factories in the Midwest. The courthouse is where county business transpires, where the magistrates and county judge administrator who make up the fiscal court haggle over where the county gravel will be spread and, as one exasperated assistant complained, who's going to get the opportunity to do the job rather than what the whole project will do for the county. Out front, the park benches where old-timers spend the day trading political gossip are still damp.


Surrounding the square is the usual small-town mixture of stores, lunch counters, florists, smoke shops, and the two banks that have been rivals since practically the turn of the century—one of them run by an octogenarian president who knows all the families and their reputations. According to a young man just returned from Ohio, When I came back here I went over to the bank and said I'd like to borrow a thousand dollars. Old man Carver, who is about a hundred years old, he comes out and he goes, "Well, who are you?" And I said, "My name's Greg Benton." And he goes, "You any kin to Matthew Benton?" I go, "He's my great-grandfather." And he just gave me the money. I didn't even sign a note. They just handed me a thousand dollars cash because my grandfather used to own a lot of land up here.

Secondary streets, lined with parking meters whose timers are notoriously unpredictable, are crowded with furniture and appliance stores, shoe stores and barber shops, and several old hotels with their names painted high on the brick walls above the tangle of electric and telephone wires that drape from building to building. These are the stores where not too long ago an irreverent member of the elite dressed as a poor mountain woman, with old clothes and blackened teeth, and knocked on the doors seeking handouts. She found, as she suspected she would, that most of her good friends slammed the door in her face.

There is an astonishing number of lawyers' offices, all offering "no charge for initial consultation" on black-lung benefits, workers' compensation, injuries, and Social Security. More than one fifth of the county's working-age population is disabled from work, and large numbers of children receive public funds because of their mental, emotional, and physical disabilities. A child's disability check can support a family down here, explains a lawyer who works these cases.

Farther down Main Street, beyond the new Department of Mines offices and the old utility company, lie the sprawling welfare offices where child support and foster care are arranged and eligibility for food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) is determined. Like the lawyers' advertisements, these offices are reminders that the town will be transformed tomorrow when the "first-of-the-monthers" flood in from the hills and hollows to collect and spend their public assistance and disability checks.

Many will also pick up prescriptions for pain and nerve pills. Old Jackson Jones has his medical practice in a small house two blocks from the square, and patients are already parking their cars up and down the street to get in line to see him. For ten dollars he will look you over and most likely write the prescription you desire. People with little money rely on him. He comes from a powerful old-line coal family, people say, and is reputed to be a fine diagnostician. Those who seek his help have usually been treated disrespectfully at the hospital, and they appreciate his price, his straightforward manner, and his kindly advice when their children are hurting. That's the best doctor, says one patient. You tell him what's wrong and he'll give you some medicine. If you was really sick you wouldn't want to go there, but, he's like ten dollars and he'll always give you some medicine. No one refers to him as Dr. Jones—he is "Jackson Jones" to everyone.

This isolated coal town is nestled in a small river valley, and although there are pleasant small homes up and down the streets near Jackson Jones's office, most well-to-do families live up on Redbud Hill. We always say they live up there so they can look down on the rest of us, jokes Gwen Boggs, who works in a fast-food restaurant. Redbud Hill is indeed a world apart from the bustle of downtown, far removed from the rumbling coal trucks and trains, the small shacks, rusting trailers, and littered streams out in the county. Here freshly blacktopped roads meander gently over the hills, with long drives leading to homes set back from the road by broad lawns with dogwood and redbud trees. These are the homes of the lawyers, physicians, and business owners, the elite families who play golf at the country club, worship at the Baptist or Presbyterian church, and whose children attend the independent public school for city residents.

Conveniently, the city's public school is at the base of Redbud Hill. It is an educational oasis in a county and region infamous for corrupt, patronage-driven school boards and high school graduates who cannot read or write. Donna Campton says that when she graduated from it in the 1950s the city school could boast that more than two thirds of its graduates went on to attend college—a remarkable statistic for a rural public school even today. In the 1990s, a proud teacher reports, as many as 85 percent go on for more education. This public city school serves the elite and professionals and makes it possible for them to avoid confronting the politics that cripple the county schools. It is, with their church, the focal point of community life for their families. Sons play football and basketball, daughters vie to become cheerleaders. Making the cheerleading squad has become a big social status marker, and competition is keen. But like sports generally, it is kept in perspective here in the city, unlike in the county schools. One parent explains, Lower-income families emphasize sports more, like in the ghettos. Your higher-income families deemphasize sports, and are interested in more academic, country-club-type things. There's a divide there.

The divide in Blackwell is clear not only between families but also between the community institutions that serve them. Life is family based and church based, and families and churches are grouped by social class. As one minister tells it, I see people very, very concerned about their own families, and their concern stops there. Let's just say they are very defensive about the rights of their family. They don't want to be criticized. I've talked to my congregation. This concern ought to go beyond family. Living in the county seat, sending their children to the city school, participating in the parent-teacher organization and school events, and attending the old established churches, the professional- and business-class families are insulated from the poor in their county.

Jim Campton, a coal executive who lives on Redbud Hill, observes, People tend to stay together by church. I don't think there's a whole lot of interaction between the social elite and others. Same thing with our schools, although that's more diverse than it used to be. At one time the city school was considered the rich kids' school. At least that's the way most of the county people look at it. County residents concur. A restaurant worker says, It's a different caliber there—lawyers, professionals—those are "county seat" folks, and they think they're better than the rest of us. A truck driver's son comments, The kids in that school are always trying to act upper echelon over the other people.

The population of Blackwell County as a whole is 32,000, but the city that serves as county seat, where those with wealth and power and security live, has a population of only 3,000. Around 50 percent of the households in the county had incomes below $15,000 in 1989. Median family income was $18,000, compared with around $36,000 nationally. Close to 40 percent of households receive Social Security benefits, which is partly an indication that those over sixty-five and eligible for retirement can come home to live—"have a dog again," as the song goes—regardless of how scarce jobs may be.

Work is hard to find. Only half the working-age men are employed, only a quarter of working-age women. These days you can't even buy a job, complains one young man recently laid off from a mine. Even men have a hard time getting work around here, a young single mother from Michigan explains. She was told to go on welfare when she went looking for work through the Department of Employment.

The Blackwell Department of Employment is the local office of a state agency charged with tracking jobs and connecting employers with job seekers, and staff members here have considerable discretion both in dispensing the jobs that do come across their desks and in working out deals with employers to subsidize wages. For example, poor women seeking employment say the local motel requires that all applications for positions as maids come through this agency, thus ensuring that the government pays a portion of their minimum wage. The director and her staff link workers with jobs, and this means political power because jobs are so scarce. Their own children have landed good positions in recent years—driving a delivery truck, managing a restaurant or meat counter. The people who come here are the workers, the director points out, not the poor. Neighbors they have coached in Little League or known through church come to see what is available, and the department itself becomes part of the general system by which jobs are obtained through personal connections.

Dependence on public assistance is widespread. Volatile mining employment combined with high levels of coal-related disability has meant that receiving public assistance is widely accepted and not stigmatized. When coal miners are laid off for several months they get food stamps and unemployment compensation, and their children are eligible for subsidized youth employment programs and other opportunities for the disadvantaged. In fact, many young women and men from families with middleclass incomes receive subsidized housing, training opportunities, food stamps, and even AFDC in some cases. They and their family and friends view their own welfare receipt as different from the dependency of the first-of-the-monthers, who they assume have no interest in working. A teenage mother who is from a well-placed family but receives AFDC, food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, as well as subsidized child care and transportation while she attends college, explained. We look down on people for whom receiving assistance is all they're going to do with their lives. My husband and I are not always going to have to have assistance because we're going to school. I think people realize that with us. My parents told me that there was nothing wrong with us getting assistance because we are paying for it in all actuality—because we pay our taxes into it and everything. We're not going to be on it all of our life. For me, personally, it would be hard not to look down on those who that is all they do and don't have any ambition. Another welfare recipient whose parents have good jobs distanced herself from those who have long depended on welfare, referring to them as scum, the bottom of the barrel, people you don't want to associate with.

The prevalence of long-term dependency dominates descriptions of social life in the county in the 1990s. Community residents use phrases like "huge gulf," "cliff's edge," and "giant gap" to describe the distance between the haves and the have-nots. Those with jobs characterize the groups as "those who work" and "those who draw." It is assumed that those "who draw" do so by choice. People that want to work are the same as people that do work, says one of the employed, because they're still trying to work. And then there's people who don't want to work at all, never have and never will. We call them first-of-the-monthers because they come out of the mountains the first of the month with about ten kids and don't wash. When I worked at the grocery store, you could smell them coming. But they just draw food stamps and stuff like that. They live like that, and I guess that's the way they want to live.


Excerpted from Worlds Apart by Cynthia M. Duncan. Copyright © 2014 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


New Foreword by Angela Glover Blackwell, ix,
Foreword to the 1999 Edition by Robert Coles, xiii,
Preface to the 1999 Edition, xvii,
Preface and Acknowledgments for the 2014 Edition, xxi,
List of People Profiled, xxiii,
chapter one Blackwell: Rigid Classes and Corrupt Politics in Appalachia's Coal Fields, 1,
chapter two Dahlia: Racial Segregation and Planter Control in the Mississippi Delta, 89,
chapter three Gray Mountain: Equality and Civic Involvement in Northern New England, 188,
chapter four Social Change and Social Policy, 233,
Appendix, 265,
Notes, 289,
Acknowledgments for the 1999 Edition, 297,
Index, 299,

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