Falling Behind in Kentucky
By John Biewen - Correspondent

Part of The Forgotten Fourteen Million

  A view of Bailey Branch hollow
Families in poverty live in virtually every community urban, rural, and suburban. Yet most middle-class Americans have little or no contact with their poor neighbors. Movies and TV dramas rarely portray poverty as American children experience it today, and even news reports on poverty seldom go much deeper than census bureau statistics.

CHICKENS CLUCK AND JAB their beaks into wet sandy ground outside the ramshackle trailers in Bailey Branch hollow. The trailers line a small creek that curves its way down the hollow, walled in on both sides by steep hills. 30-year-old Virginia Trusty owns one of the trailers - a banged-up pink one, vintage 1960's. She bought it from a relative for $800. It took her a year to pay it off.

"I'm a single parent raising four kids," Virginia says, introducing her family to a visitor. "There's Paul Trusty, he's my oldest, he's 10."

"Sissy," Paul shouts at his baby sister, who's sitting by the drafty door and whimpering. "Get away from the door."

"Then there's Britanny Trusty, she's 8," Virginia continues. "Jonathan Trusty, he's 4, and Ashley Trusty, who's 14 months old."

The baby gurgles. 4-year-old Jonathan asks his mother, "Would you buy me a little dog?"

"I just hope they have a better future," Virginia says. "Something to look forward to. A better future than what they got well, what I've had."

Virginia grew up poor just a few miles away, the daughter of a tenant tobacco farmer. Now her kids are four of the nation's 14 million poor children. The family survives on public aid worth $10,000 barely half the federal poverty threshold for a family of five.

"This is Mama's bedroom," 8-year-old Brittany says, showing me a tiny compartment at the back of the trailer. In fact, it's not just Virginia's room. She shares her twin bed with 4-year-old Jonathan; wedged tightly beside the bed is Ashley's low-flung, second-hand crib.

Where does Brittany sleep?

"On the couch," she says, matter-of-factly.

Ashley, Paul, Jonathan, and Britanny Trusty.
(Click for larger view)

The couch that doubles as Brittany's bed is worn and stained. The trailer has a chipboard ceiling and a patchwork of plywood paneling on the walls. It's heated by a coal-burning stove.

"Well, it did stay real cold in here [until] we put plastic stuff up over the windows," Virginia says. "Sort of like insulated that to keep the cold air and stuff out. It's home. It's home for me and the kids. It's a roof over our head for right now, until better things happen for us."

Better things, such as a job. Or a man with a job.

Virginia fits some of the stereotypes of the welfare mother. She went on AFDC when her first son was born ten years ago. She never married. Each of her kids has a different father. None stayed around for long, and none helps Virginia support the children.

"I can't give 'em everything they want but I try, I do," says Virginia.

She doesn't own a car. Her phone service comes and goes with her ability to pay the bill.

You wouldn't guess it from economic reports, but 20% of American children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. That's down a few points since the mid-1990's; the nation's remarkable run of economic growth is beginning to lift some the the poorest Americans. But the child poverty rate is still almost double what it was in the early 1970's, when Virginia was small. A complicated stew of forces pushed more children into poverty in recent decades. The number of single-parent families grew. Public aid buys less than it used to. And the jobs available to workers without special skills are more likely to pay poverty wages.

Poverty, working or not

Under welfare reform, Virginia is required to look for a job. Until she finds one, she has to work for her welfare check. Kentucky's welfare-to-work law requires her to put in 25 hours a week at the county recycling center in downtown Salyersville. This day she's all alone at the center, crushing plastic laundry bottles with her tennis shoe.

"It ain't no fun job, tell you the truth, but it's just to keep the kids fed and took care of. This is the only means I've got right now."

Her $383 monthly check amounts to a wage of less than four dollars an hour.

"Ain't nobody gonna hand you nothing for free," she says, neatly summing up the nation's post-welfare-reform ethos. "They ain't."

While some who've gone from welfare to work have also left poverty behind, many have not. A recent report found a third of poor children now have working parents.

Two such children, cousins to Virginia Trusty's kids, live just down the hollow.

  Wilbur and Janet Wallen married 20 years ago, when he was 17 and
she was 13.
(Click for larger view)

At 4:30 one morning, Virginia's brother-in-law Wilbur Wallen stokes the fire in his wood- and coal-burning stove. His wife, Janet Virginia's older sister stands at the kitchen counter, making sandwiches and clunking four Pepsis into Wilbur's lunch cooler. The Wallens' four small dogs bustle about. Their two sons, age 14 and 12, are still asleep; they share a twin bed in the back of the trailer.

When Wilbur's lunch is ready, Janet sits down with her husband and daubs hydrogen peroxide on the back of his swollen right hand. He poked a hole in it on the job a couple of days ago, near the middle nuckle. "It's sorer than it was yesterday," he mutters.

Yes, Wilbur says, he could have taken the day off and collected worker's comp.

"But, see, if I'd have done that, we're on overtime right now and I wouldn't have got overtime. And I need all the money I can get. See, my boy, he's graduating from 8th grade this year. I've gotta buy his cap and gown for him. $25, I believe they said. And some schools is all the time wanting money for something."

Until a year and a half ago, the Wallens relied on welfare and whatever minimum wage jobs Wilbur could find. Now the family lives entirely on Wilbur's paycheck from a truck assembly plant: $8.30 an hour.

"Well, I've got to admit I've got a little better job than I used to," he says, acknowledging that even he might be benefiting from the nation's economic growth. "But you gotta travel so far to get to it."

Far, indeed -184 miles round-trip, every day. Even low-paying jobs are scarce in the eastern Kentucky hills. Wilbur goes to work two hours away in the central Kentucky town of Richmond.

  Sisters Janet Wallen and Virginia Trusty.
(click for larger view)
Outside in the cold March morning, his 1981 Dodge (purchase price: $400) whirs and spits and quits, then finally turns over on the third try. He races the engine for a couple of minutes, then pulls the car door closed. The Dodge rumbles off down the dark gravel road. Wilbur's reward for driving four hours a day is a paycheck that lifts his family just to the federal poverty line about $17,000 for a family of four.

Not just an Appalachian thing

In the hills of central Appalachia, the news reports about soaring stock markets and low unemployment can sound like they're coming from another, luckier country. Here in Magoffin County, poverty and unemployment are triple the national rates. "I think it's good that the economy is up," says Virginia Trusty, "but what's it gonna do for people in eastern Kentucky?"

To understand one big reason for central Appalachia's chronic economic woes, simply take a drive. The roads dip and swerve through the hills like gnarly blacktop ribbons. Even an impatient driver will rarely achieve a speed of more than 35 miles an hour. Employers want to build their factories and office buildings in places that are easy to get to, and from; they shun the Appalachian mountains.

Some things have changed since the 1960's, when Robert Kennedy and other War on Poverty advocates drove these roads. They called attention to laid-off coal miners and their hungry, shoeless children. The images jabbed at the nation's conscience. The resulting federal spending created some middle-class jobs for social service workers but mainly strengthened the safety net. Food stamps, Head Start, and Medicaid eased the symptoms of poverty without curing it.

So, why not move to a place with more and better jobs? Janet Wallen says it's out of the question.

"I just like to stay somewhere where I know all the folks and know all the places," Janet says, washing the dishes in her Bailey Branch trailer. "I know most of the places in Magoffin County because I was born and raised at 'em, and I know most of the people in Magoffin County. I've got a lot of kin in Magoffin County and everything. Some will help you and some won't. You just take what you can get. And that's the way we do. We just help each other out around here, that's what I like about it."

In short, the hills are home.

But while it might seem irrational to stay in a place with a chronically depressed economy on the grounds that it provides security, the Wallens' decision to stay put makes some economic sense. A move to a city would mean more expensive housing; they bought their trailer for $500. And it probably would not open doors to lucrative jobs. The new global, information economy pays a premium for the workers it needs most those with education or technical training. It treats people without those assets as a dime a dozen, as they are in places like Mexico and Indonesia.

Janet and Wilbur Wallen are educational have-nots.

"I went to 7th grade," Janet says. "I passed out of 7th grade, but I didn't go to the 8th grade. I got married 3 days after school was out. I was 13 years old when I got married. He was 17."

Janet and her sister Virginia grew up poor, as did Janet's husband Wilbur, and now they're poor adults. Statistics say their children are at high risk of repeating that cycle. Child poverty is not just a condition, but often a trap. Poor children get sick and die more often than middle-class kids. They commit more crimes. And they're twice as likely to drop out before finishing high school.

"My youngest one," Janet says, "if I'd give him the chance, he'd quit school right now. But we won't give him that chance."

Janet and Wilbur's son
Jim Wallen
(click for larger view)

In the late afternoon, an orange bus crawls up the hollow and drops off a half-dozen Bailey Branch kids, including 12-year-old Jim Wallen. There's a chilly spring drizzle and the creek is running fast. Jim walks down by the brown stream to give his rooster, Red, some fresh water. He swapped another rooster for Red, he explains, because Red is "prettier and he fights better."

Jim is a handsome, athletic-looking boy with tousled blond hair. He says his mom is right: he doesn't like school much. His grades range from B's to D's. And he doesn't get along with some of his teachers.

"They're grouchy and stuff, they gripe at me and stuff. Mostly because I don't listen to 'em. And I turn my work in and they say I don't turn it in, and they say I get low computer grades and stuff, low testing scores."

Jim doesn't care much about grades and computers. He wants to drive race cars and work construction.

"It's what you got"

Americans have carried on a long-running, politically-loaded debate about why poor children don't fare as well, on average, as middle-class kids. Some say poor parents fail their children. They set bad examples teen pregnancy, addiction and neglect to teach the value of education. Others say that so-called 'culture of poverty' is not the root problem but a predictable symptom of hopelessness.

Recent studies have found poor kids are at heightened risk of quitting school even if they come from intact families in safe neighborhoods. Eula Hall - a near legend in eastern Kentucky - thinks she knows why.

How do social pressures hobble poor children?
Listen to an excerpt from Eula Hall interview
RealAudio 3.0

"You give up. Very, very bright, talented children if they were just encouraged. And if you don't dream, you soon die."

Eula Hall is a large 71-year-old woman with a gray beehive hairdo and a kind face. She grew up in severe poverty, then endured an abusive marriage for more than thirty years. Finally, in middle-age, she gathered the strength to change her life. She used a federal grant to found the Mud Creek clinic for poor people in Grethel, Ky.

Hall believes that today the social divide that beats poor kids down is more palpable than ever.

"It's so sad, so sad to see little children withdrawn and isolated from the rest of, lots of other children, because of their parents having to live in poverty. It's class. You know, it used to be the black and the white, but anymore it's the rich and poor. It's what you got."

Jim Wallen says he doesn't know about class divisions. But he does feel picked-on in school.

"I mostly fight a lot," he says. "Because they [other kids] always make fun of me. Say I'm ugly and fat, stupid."

Jim isn't any of those things, I point out. Why, then, would would kids say such things?

He shrugs. "I don't know. They don't like me, I guess."

Percentage of poor children under the age of six living in extreme poverty, 1975 - 1994
(click for larger view)
A lot of kids like Jim fall behind their classmates even before the first bus-ride to kindergarten. Recent studies have found that a child's chances of succeeding in school are damaged most profoundly by deep poverty in early childhood. And it's precisely the children at that vulnerable pre-school age who are most likely to be poor and to be extremely poor. The percentage of young children living in deep poverty that is, with a household income below half the poverty line has doubled since the 1970's.

In fact, the U.S. government says that 4.2 million American kids face moderate to severe hunger. Than means they sometimes miss meals or their parents can't afford to feed them a balanced diet.

The Full Gospel Missionary pantry in Salyersville, Kentucky opens its doors at the end of each month. People start lining up early for the bags of groceries enough to feed a small family for a few days.

"See, we're giving out cereal and then there's crackers in the boxes, then there's pop tarts and spaghetti, and there's green beans and corn and pork and stuff like that down in there so they're getting a pretty good bag this month," says volunteer Judith Collinsworth, who comes each month to help fill the grocery bags.

The need for emergency food assistance is growing in eastern Kentucky. The region is adding new distribution sites every month. That trend isn't limited to distressed places like Appalachia. The U.S. Conference of Mayors says demand for emergency food in cities went up about 15-percent each of the last two years. It estimates a fifth of the need is going unmet. Patricia Puckett founded the Salyersville pantry ten years ago. She says her monthly clientele has grown from 25 families to 300.

"For one thing, the price of food has gone up," she explains. "Another is that we only have one factory here and they very seldom ever hire. Then the people that do get jobs here, it's mostly service jobs like McDonald's and Burger King and that kind of thing, where it's minimum wage. They just don't have enough income to feed their family."

Some parents who can't feed their children properly get help from Head Start.

At the Mayking Head Start center in Letcher County, Ky, several four-year-olds and their teachers sit at round tables and sing an apt grace: "A-B-C-D-E-F-G, thank you Lord for feeding me." Then they fill their plates with spaghetti, sweet corn, lettuce salad, and buttered bread. The children get breakfast at the center, too.

  Four-year-old Allie Morgan at the Mayking Head Start Center near Whiteburg, Kentucky.
(click for larger view)
"Our lunch is not what you would consider a lunch. It is more like a balanced dinner," says center director Jeannette Yonts. "So that if this is the only meal and breakfast that the kids get, then they have already had their daily needs."

As crucial as good nutrition is for growing young minds and bodies, Yonts says poor kids have other holes in their lives that are harder to fill. Most disturbingly, only 1/4 of the kids at the Mayking center have books at home, according to parent surveys.

"The ones that do really enjoy being read to and you can tell which ones have been [immersed] into books and literature of any kind," says Yonts. The other 3/4 of the kids, she says, "pay no attention whatsoever to books."

A Mother's Advice

Back at one of the trailers on Bailey Branch, 8-year-old Brittany Trusty digs for the only four children's books her family owns. They belong to her baby sister, Ashley.

"Sissy, this is her Christmas present she got from her social worker," Brittany explains.

Does Brittany have any books of her own?


Parents in poverty can't afford many books or educational toys. It's tempting, though, to find fault with Brittany's mother, Virginia, for spending $30 dollars on a used Nintendo instead of books. Maybe that's one reason 10-year-old Paul struggles in school. Then again, Brittany gets straight A's.

"I want to be a teacher," she proclaims.

In 1997,
26 million Americans visited a food shelf or soup kitchen.

Of course, some children do climb over the barriers that come with growing up poor. Americans love their stories. We spend less time considering stories like that of Jim Wallen, the 12-year-old who would quit school tomorrow if his parents would only let him.

Jim eats his evening meal in a chair in front of the TV. He taps on his plate with his fork, rapping out the beat to an ad for a college scholarship program, to his mother's annoyance.

"Jimmy, quit," Janet says sharply. "Eat your supper and quit."

If you ask Janet what she thinks about the middle-class world on the television, the implied contrast to her own life seems to poke at her pride.

"We get everything we need," she insists. "Long as we get what we need and everything, make a living, that's it. And which [Wilbur's] out making a living and everything, [I'm] at home taking care of the kids and the house."

But at other times, Janet shows a very different and fierce wish for her sons. For instance, when Jim says he'd like to get married at 18.

"Where you gonna take her to?" demands Janet who, as a 13-year-old bride, moved in with her husband's parents and stayed for almost a decade.

"I don't know," Jim says sullenly.

"Without the money and without a home you gotta have the money and you gotta have a home to take her to!"

"I'm gonna get a home first," Jim says weakly.

Janet takes a breath and launches into a full-blown lecture. "There ain't no way you can get married at the age of 18 and think that you can go through college, get a job, and support a family, and get your own home and everything else. You can't do that. That's what Mommy and Daddy's been a-trying to tell youn's. You get your education and everything, then you can get you a woman. Other than that, if you don't go through all of that, then you ain't gonna have nothin'." Janet pauses and lets her words sink in before adding, "And you know it."

Jim fidgets and stares at his lap. It's hard to say how clearly his mother's message is getting through.

As his father, Wilbur, starts his daily, two-hour drive to work in the pre-dawn darkness, he looks out at the highway through the cracked windshield of his old Dodge. For some kids who grow up poor, the American Dream can seem out of sight, somewhere beyond the headlights. Wilbur says when he was growing up, he didn't know any adults with more than a high school degree. Nor did anyone in his life have a salary or a mortgage, let alone stocks or retirement savings. The same is true of his son, Jim.

"That's why I'm trying to get him and his brother to go on through college," Wilbur says. "Try to get 'em a good job where they can make a comfortable living, without having to get out and rake and scrape to pay the bills. Where they don't have to kill theirself like I have all my life."

Wilbur and Janet Wallen are drilling their sons on perhaps the two most important steps out of poverty: Stay in school, and don't have kids until you can support them. There are hopeful signs, such as the falling teen pregnancy rate, that young people are increasingly grasping those rules of the modern economy. Still, millions of poor kids enter the race well behind the starting line. For many of them, knowing the rules may not be enough.

The Forgotten Fourteen Million

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