Where even God doesn't help: The Washington Post chronicles the despair of rural poor


After President Donald Trump’s victory last year, not a few journalists traveled to the hinterland to find all those disenchanted white folks who voted Republican this time around. Who were these people and was it possible to get inside their heads?

The Washington Post has come out with three lengthy pieces about these folks, one of which was set in Grundy, Va., a town I stayed in six years ago when I was researching serpent-handling Pentecostals (which also ran in the Post). This section of Appalachia is where a lot of these particular believers live. The photo with this story is one I took in a town in Tazewell County, Va., just down the road from Grundy and where one in six working-age residents are on disability benefits.

Would this series, I wondered, mention the faith that sustains many of these residents, who have little else in life to live for? The answer, I found, was yes and no.

The first part of the series, set in Alabama, focused on the stunning percentage of adults who are on disability across the country.

Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics…
The decision to apply, in many cases, is a decision to effectively abandon working altogether. For the severely disabled, this choice is, in essence, made for them. But for others, it’s murkier. Aches accumulate. Years pile up. Job prospects diminish.

Occasionally, Desmond Spencer, one of the people profiled in the story, attends church.

But increasingly there were days when Spencer knew he was faking a belief, once so strong, that everything would work out. There were days like today, when he sat in a pew in a small church in Lamar County, listening to members of the congregation ask for prayers for health issues:
“My mother-in-law is in the hospital this week, and she has some heart problems,” a man said.
“My body is not cooperating with my job whatsoever,” a woman said.
“I got my back surgery,” another man said. “I hope it takes this time.”

I wish the reporter had been able to talk to the pastor of that church. Are congregations able to help ailing parishioners at all or are they just as short of money as anyone? When I saw the plate being passed during serpent-handling services, very little money was ever put in.

A second part, set in Missouri, had a scene that took place in a church.

Franny took a seat at the front and listened as the preacher began his sermon: “We once had 60 people in this church, and I’ve seen it come down to 13 or 14.” She stood and, as the preacher’s face reddened, she held her arms out as wide as they would go, closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and said, “Thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus, thank you, Jesus.”
Most of the congregants then approached the stage, and so did Franny. Together, they began a song, and when it was done, everyone went back to their seats. Except for Franny. She stared out across the church at the mostly empty chairs. Stationary farm equipment glinted outside a back window.

Religion, in these stories, seems to be one more powerless thing in these unfortunate peoples’ lives; a strange thing they clung to but which offered little solace and no answers.

Were there no churches in these areas that help the poor or help people find work?

The third part did not mention faith. This is the one based in Grundy, where I found the descriptions incredibly true to what I discovered while in the area.

GRUNDY, Va. -- Five days earlier, his mother had spent the last of her disability check on bologna, cheese, bread and Pepsi. Two days earlier, he had gone outside and looked at the train tracks that wind between the coal mines and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to get out of this.” One day earlier, the family dog had collapsed from an unnamed illness, and, without money for a veterinarian, he had watched her die on the porch. And now it was Monday morning, and Tyler McGlothlin, 19, had a plan.
“About time to go,” said his mother, Sheila McGlothlin, 57, stamping out a cigarette.
“I’m ready,” Tyler said, walking across a small, decaying house wedged against a mountain and strewn with dirty dishes, soda cans and ashtrays. They went outside, stepping past bottles of vodka his father had discarded before disappearing into another jail cell, and climbed a dirt path toward a housemate’s car.
He knew his plan was not a good one. But what choice did he have? He had looked inside the refrigerator that morning, and the math didn’t add up. Five people were living in the house, none of whom worked. It would be 17 days before his mother received another disability check and more food stamps. And the refrigerator contained only seven eggs, two pieces of bologna, 24 slices of Kraft American cheese, some sliced ham and one pork chop.

All this contains some really beautiful writing and I recommend you read them all.

What's odd is that those profiled are among a highly religious populace whose faith doesn't motivate them to get off disability and get a job. A video that runs with the second part in the series tells us that the federal programs funding the 13 million U.S. citizens on disability will run out of money by 2022. That's five years from now. 

There's some religious debate out there as to what our responsibility toward those on disability should be, ranging from libertarian Christians who don't believe in any government programs whatsoever to a social justice-oriented Jewish viewpoint

I will say that many of the folks I met in the serpent-handling community were poor and/or on disability through no fault of their own. Often they were single moms whose husbands had dumped them or they were people who were sick because they could not afford health insurance. The stories are complex and not all of them are the able-bodied who are leeching off the system. We're talking about the same kinds of issues that made J.D. Vance's "Hillbilly Elegy" a national bestseller.

These Americans live in a world that most of you will never visit or get to know.  Do take the time to read about them.

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