One of the many things I love about traveling is how it forces you to minimalize. No matter how big your bag, you can’t take every thing with you. I take pride in having once traveled Europe for a month, with absolutely everything I had with me in my backpack. Of course, traveling just means a short trip; you couldn’t possibly live with so little, right?
Wrong. That’s what Neon, Kentucky slapped me in the face with when I first traveled there in 2000. People there live minimally because they have to. They can’t have that perfect house, or that perfect car. They make due with what they have but then they make up for it in community and religion.
Coming back as an adult, I was less focused on myself, and how the trip impacted me, and more interested in learning about the community itself. A condensed version of my observations are below. Keep in mind that this is only my perspective, but it is a perspective created from stories of at least a dozen locals that I spoke to.
First of all, it’s a welfare state, in the worst ways. It was one of the common threads in almost everyone I talked to: the disarray of the welfare system. Welfare is completely broken. People actually choose not to work because they can actually make a living on welfare. This is so bad that there’s a work shortage, and one local business owner I spoke with couldn’t find an honest person to man his shop for 8 hours a day. He has posted a sign on the front door of his shop to have potential patrons call him, and he’ll come in to assist them.
Compounding the welfare issue is the drug issue. So many people turn to drugs – ostensibly as an escape from poverty. A relatively recent report corroborates this stating that “in the poorer counties in the region, reports of drug abuse and general mental health problems are significantly higher than in the rest of Appalachia.” (Worth noting that there is no found relation between the drug abuse and mental health problems.)
The drug problem compounds the welfare issue because it creates a market. People go to doctors and dentists, and fake an illness (or break their toe or pull their teeth – seriously) to get drugs they can then sell for big money that helps tide them over to the next welfare payment. Why would the doctors do this? Simple. They can list each prescription they write as an appointment and collect the insurance money. It’s actually impossible to have 100 appointments in an 8 hour work day – unless they were 4.8 minutes a piece – but some doctors evidently do with this racket. Unethical? Sure. Quick way to make money? You betcha.
And this doesn’t even touch the issue of coal mining as the still-dominant industry. While one local pointed out how the coal mines are having to advertise for the first time ever, they still are one of the highest paying jobs in the region, who also provide health insurance. Seeing a man walking up to a ice cream stand covered head-to-toe in soot made me wonder how anyone could withstand that as their job. Or simply survive. But I guess when you have to make ends meet, and that’s the only option, you make due.
“So why isn’t any other industry moving in?” I asked that question, because it seems that something needs to jumpstart the area. The answer, it turns out, is simple: there’s not enough access to water, and the mountain-filled region makes it almost impossible to buy usable land at a cheap price.
In the meantime, it seems that what our group was doing – combating poverty through building and renovating homes – remains one of the best solutions. But it will definitely take other changes to resolve some of the issues above. For right now, the locals turn to each other and create a community to survive these issues.