Reason Podcast

McDowell Is the Poorest, Sickest, Most Hopeless County in America. Why Doesn't Everyone Just Leave? (Reason Podcast)

Ronald Bailey traveled back to his familial home to find out what went wrong in Appalachia.

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The short answer: Most did leave. In the last half-century, about 80 percent of the population of McDowell County, West Virginia, departed as jobs disappeared and civic life frayed, writes Reason's Ron Bailey in "Stuck," a story in our January 2017 issue. So why does the other 20 percent stay put?

Bailey's grandparents left McDowell County around 1950, at a time when the town of Welch was known to locals as "Little New York." When Bailey visited recently, he found only empty streets with the exception of a lone pickup truck.

Today, "nearly 47 percent of all personal income in the county is from Social Security, disability insurance, food stamps…and other federal programs," Bailey writes. Twenty-five percent of residents under 65 are considered disabled, and only 32 percent of those over 16 are part of the workforce.

In our latest podcast, Bailey talks with Nick Gillespie about those who stayed behind and what it says about American poverty. Part of the problem is that "at this point, the government is paying poor people to stay there and remain poor," Bailey argues.

The interview touches on the role of welfare, the federal disability program, and how Bailey's research relates to Charles Murray's Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, and Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance's blockbuster 2016 memoir of growing up in rural Ohio (which Bailey reviewed for Reason).

Click below to listen to that conversation—or subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.

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  1. Why don’t people leave? There is a lot of reasons for that. First, leaving isn’t easy if you are poor. You have to have money in the bank and a way to live until you find a job. If you had that, you wouldn’t be poor.

    Second, if you are disabled or on a fixed income, living in a place like makes sense because it is cheap. It makes even more sense if your family and support structure are there. Gee Ron why do all of these people who are unable to work and living on a fixed income choose to live in a place that is cheap and where their support structure is rather than moving to a hip and expensive city like they should? I have no idea.

    Lastly, I keep reading these “life among the exotic” articles as various hipster reporters come out of their coastal enclaves to write patronizing articles about the people who live in these places and I am left to wonder why they have never asked these questions about people in their own cities. Why do people in poor, black inner city areas not leave? No one ever asks that. No, they only ask it about poor white people because everyone knows they deserve what they get and writing an article about how stupid they are not to leave is something that everyone should do.

    1. I find it hard to imagine that you have already listened to the podcast but even the snippet text above went right over your head didn’t it? For one thing Bailey went there because his family is from there, not as a hipster “life among the exotic” adventure.

      1. Who gives a shit if his family is from there? Moreover, it is not hard to see why people don’t leave. It makes perfectly rational sense not to leave or it is just impossible for some people to leave.

        I don’t see why that is so hard to figure out it warrants a podcast. And condescension is not something that ever goes over my head. It is about the easiest thing to sniff out there is.

    2. A lot do leave, it just happens to occur more on a generational basis. My father’s generation left SW VA (thank god) back in the sixties, half came to the Norfolk area and half went to Oregon. People follow each other and tend not to disperse.

      1. A lot do. And the reality most that have the ability and initiative to do better, do leave. Those left behind are the ones who are too poor, too old or too sick for leaving to be an option.

        “Why don’t they leave” is really just another way of asking “why are they poor”, because the implication is that things would be better if they left. Otherwise why ask the question. And the answer to “why are they poor” is manifold and varies with each individual. Some people just can’t hack it and will always be poor. They have to live somewhere. And if you are poor, that country is probably as good and in many ways better than most other places.

        1. J: You might want to read my article. FYI: So why don’t people just leave? That question is actually surprisingly easy to answer: They did. After all, 80 percent of McDowell’s population, including my grandparents, cleared out of the county to seek opportunities elsewhere during the last half-century. …

          In a Fall 2014 National Affairs article called “Moving to Work,” R Street Institute analysts Eli Lehrer and Lori Sanders asked, “What is keeping the poor from moving their families to new places to take advantage of better opportunities?” They argue that “the answer lies primarily in the structure of poverty-relief programs.” In other words, the government is paying people to be poor.

          Many of the 80 or so means-tested federal welfare programs that provide food aid, housing assistance, medical assistance, child care assistance, and other services for low-income individuals and families are administered by state agencies that each have differing requirements and standards. “For an individual or family faced with the stressful prospect of uprooting a household and leaving behind established community support systems, even a temporary loss of welfare benefits can be daunting,” they argue. They conclude that “America’s decentralized welfare state, in short, presents a major barrier to mobility itself.”

          1. So do America’s rental laws. Try getting a place to live without several thousand dollars in the bank and a steady income sometime. You have to have a job to move but you can’t get a job without moving and looking for one. That more than anything is why people stay.

    3. “You have to have money in the bank and a way to live until you find a job.”

      Thousands of hobos disagree with you.

      1. yeah because being homeless is such a great way to be and so easy to get out of once you are there.

    4. Why don’t people leave?

      It’s because they have free minds, isn’t it?

  2. This was a very good article in the dead tree version of Reason.

    There may be hope for rural America yet. As John points out, it’s frigging cheap to live there. While most people who telecommute now (Intercommute?) are young and attracted to bright lights, that will change. At some point, being able to live anywhere there’s good wi-fi will open up vast open areas to re-settlement. Empty nesters might find that selling their $900k condo in SF bay and buying a dozen acres in rural Nevada a decent deal.

    1. Empty nesters might find that selling their $900k condo in SF bay and buying a dozen acres in rural Nevada a decent deal.

      Rural Nevada???? I mean I know some people love the desert, but that seems a bit extreme…also people need to live near healthcare facilities usually, which precludes Libertarian wilderness utopias for the most part.

    2. The problem is there is no economic incentive to build the infrastructure for “good wi-fi” or 4G cell service in these economic backwaters.

  3. They stay because it’s way easier to hide your still in empty country.

  4. Give it back to the injuns.

  5. Weren’t we told just last week that the reason for the poverty and lost jobs is because of restrictive immigration? Or is that just for large democtatic urban centers?

  6. RE: McDowell Is the Poorest, Sickest, Most Hopeless County in America. Why Doesn’t Everyone Just Leave?
    Ronald Bailey traveled back to his familial home to find out what went wrong in Appalachia.

    The ruling elitist filth has made it profitable to stay there but not profitable enough to leave the county.
    Now all the little people there will do as they’re told when they’re told and like it.
    McDowell county is just a microcosm of our ruling elitist turds have for all of us little people.
    Don’t tell me our ruling elitist turds don’t know what’s good for us all.

  7. McDowell County was coal country and suffered the same fate as most mineral extraction areas/countries…wealth comes in, people flock to it…wealth is exhausted, money leaves, but people are stuck…government services decline and it takes a long time for the area to revert to nature/rural property developers to come in and reconvert area to entertainment and recreation. West Virginia could be a haven for nature lovers once the last load of coal is a distant memory…until then it is a poverty stricken hell hole.

    1. If you read Ron’s article, the myriad welfare programs actually prevent the cycle from ending. Government provides just enough to have offspring without child-raising effort.

  8. Kevin Williamson of the National Review had the charming line:

    The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die.

    Looks like Reason agrees.

    Why Doesn’t Everyone Just Leave?

    When was the last time anyone posed this question about a poor inner city? I wonder why that question never gets asked.

    Why doesn’t everyone just eat cake?

  9. Interesting that Ron found the operative distinction was between those who owned, and those who lived on wages.
    Lockean Proviso strikes again.

    Saw a fascinating article by Ben Franklin
    Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751
    Starts from a populist, nationalist premise and argues for trade protectionism, antislavery, anti immigration.

    Details how the Lockean Proviso (availability of cheap land) differentiated the US from Europe, keeping wages high because of the easy alternative of getting your own land, enabling younger marriages and greater fertility.

    IMO, the failure to account for the Lockean Proviso is the major theoretical failure of mainstream free market political theory.

  10. Nick Gillespie, please let Ron finish his thoughts rather than interrupt after one sentence to ask the next question. You did this over and over again and it ruined the presentation. (Especially when, once you seized the floor, you went “um um um” showing that you weren’t ready to use it once you seized it. That habit makes me scream even in ordinary conversation.)

  11. I grew up there, left 15 years ago, my family still resides there and I visit every few months, so I’m an expert on McDowell Co, WV.
    These people ENJOY being on welfare. I’ve had them LITERALLY laugh in my face when I told them I could get them a job. A job making $32 an hour. I’ve been made fun of for working “when I don’t have to”. Why should they work? They drive brand new cars and wear brand name clothes, all courtesy of the state and government.
    You think the 25% on disability are actually disabled? A person I know gets it because he claims he has PTSD from a carjacking 15 years ago. Not the military or murder suicide he survived, but a damn carjacking. The drs give out disability claims like candy because they know there’s no other income options.
    My brother is a boss in the mines and tells me it’s extremely difficult to fill the positions because almost no one can pass the drug test and if they do, they rob the places blind getting all the copper and metal they can find. Every single person I know this whos moved away has let people from McDowell Co stay with them until they save money to get a place of their own. They rob them blind or bring drugs in their houses, so they won’t let anyone else.
    If you bleeding heart’s would stop enabling them with your debilitating compassion, the poverty would be nowhere near what it is now.

  12. I grew up there, left 15 years ago, my family still resides there and I visit every few months, so I’m an expert on McDowell Co, WV.
    These people ENJOY being on welfare. I’ve had them LITERALLY laugh in my face when I told them I could get them a job. A job making $32 an hour. I’ve been made fun of for working “when I don’t have to”. Why should they work? They drive brand new cars and wear brand name clothes, all courtesy of the state and government.
    You think the 25% on disability are actually disabled? A person I know gets it because he claims he has PTSD from a carjacking 15 years ago. Not the military or murder suicide he survived, but a damn carjacking. The drs give out disability claims like candy because they know there’s no other income options.
    My brother is a boss in the mines and tells me it’s extremely difficult to fill the positions because almost no one can pass the drug test and if they do, they rob the places blind getting all the copper and metal they can find. Every single person I know this whos moved away has let people from McDowell Co stay with them until they save money to get a place of their own. They rob them blind or bring drugs in their houses, so they won’t let anyone else.
    If you bleeding heart’s would stop enabling them with your debilitating compassion, the poverty would be nowhere near what it is now.

  13. Anyone who disagrees can take a trip in with me and I’ll show you exactly how they think. How entitled they are. The nicer things they have than you, a person who works. I’ll show you just how much they appreciate being carried by the tax payer. They wouldn’t care if you starved, as long as they could sit on their fat asses and not have to work. I’m serious. I’ll take you there. You morons need a wake up call.

  14. Like you said, 80% of the population already left. I bet the average IQ there is like 85 at this point (and that might be the least of their problems).

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