The Tragedy of the Dependency Culture

My old hometown newspaper, the Lexington Herald-Leader, is running an outstanding series of articles on the deep and persistent poverty of Appalachia. It’s worth studying long-term poverty in Appalachia not just because we care for our fellow citizens but also because the plight of the Appalachian poor in fact galvanized LBJ to launch the War on Poverty.

On Sunday, Herald-Leader writer Jon Cheves took a long, unblinking look at the culture of dependency that dominates Eastern Kentucky’s poor counties. It’s an outstanding piece.

To get a sense of the extent of government dependency in some Kentucky counties, in Martin County, Ky. (a county LBJ visited), consider this: Income from government transfer payments exceeds all income from wages and salaries — a ratio that far outstrips the national average.

To be fair, since the War on Poverty began, poverty has fallen from its astronomical mid-20th-century highs:

Hundreds of billions of dollars more poured into the region as welfare, food stamps, jobless benefits, disability compensation, school subsidies, affordable housing, worker training, economic development incentives, Head Start for poor children, and expanded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Martin County alone has collected $2.1 billion in government transfer payments to residents since the late 1960s.

Life improved, to a point.

Poverty rates dropped dramatically across the United States. Take a map of the country and a pen. Color the counties black where more than one in three people live in poverty. In 1960, nearly all of the Southeast, including Kentucky, would be black. By 2010, only a few such pockets of poverty remained, including the Mississippi Delta, the Texas-Mexico border and Eastern Kentucky.

However, even in Martin County, deep inside Eastern Kentucky the poverty rate has been nearly halved, to 37 percent, since Johnson’s visit.

But is the War on Poverty truly responsible for the improvement? What about free enterprise?

Martin County’s sole economic surge in 50 years came from the coal boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, prompted by the Arab oil embargo. The Norfolk and Western Railway spent $22 million to connect the county’s largely untapped coalfields with its West Virginia rail lines. It paid $2.6 million more to acquire 98,600 acres of surface and mineral rights, which it leased to Ashland Oil, Mapco, A.T. Massey and other coal companies.

Unemployment dropped from nearly 40 percent during Johnson’s visit to 4 percent during the coal boom. Per capita income rose from $1,000 a year to $7,000.

“LBJ didn’t do a damn thing,” local historian and poet Rufus Reed, then 87, told the Martin Countian newspaper in 1982. “It was the coal companies that brought Martin County out of poverty.”

But coal is a boom-and-bust business. Today, coal mines are closing here and throughout Central Appalachia, struggling to compete because of cheaper natural gas, more accessible coalfields in the West and stricter federal pollution laws.

So the government giveth (disability checks) and it taketh away (attacking the coal industry).

One thing that is clear, however, is the dependency state is not a happy place to live. People get by on government assistance. They do not thrive:

“A lot of people here have just given up,” said Kathy Howell, 51, who lives in Martin County.

In 1977, at age 16, Howell dropped out of 11th grade in Kermit, W.Va., right across the Tug River. “Just didn’t like it no more,” she said. She moved to a plot of creekside land near Inez to marry a local boy. They had three children.

Today, Howell shares a trailer with her husband, a grown daughter and six school-age grandkids. The family gets about $2,100 a month, mostly from her disability check, food stamps and spare cash from relatives. She suffers from asthma and other lung ailments that make it impossible to work as a waitress anymore, she said.

In fact, it’s tough to overstate the importance of disability checks to the region.

Congress limited traditional welfare in 1996, imposing work requirements and five-year lifetime caps. Claims of mental and physical ailments now echo through the mountains. Disability checks — yielding as much as $710 a month per person — have become the go-to form of relief. Martin County’s stagnant population has seen a 14 percent jump in disability enrollment since the 1990s, which doesn’t count claims pending or on appeal.

Perhaps most disturbing of all — for those who seek private intervention to alleviate poverty and transform lives — it appears the avalanche of government aid inoculates the region against effective charitable assistance. In a separate report, Cheves details how charitable dollars also flow into Appalachia, to no discernible effect. In fact, local residents are often all too happy to let private volunteers do repair work they’re perfectly capable of performing themselves — sometimes leaving homes in disrepair until the annual summer influx of college students, all eager to help.

The tragedy of government dependence is the tragedy of the slowly-dying human heart — the loss of hope and the rejection of any personal revitalization that requires more than a bare minimum of effort (followed by immediate and dramatic rewards). In my own time working with at-risk youth in Kentucky, my wife and I found it extraordinarily difficult to compete with the no-strings-attached federal money, where it was all too easy to reject any true reform or true personal initiative in favor of the life they knew. The only thing that worked was intensive, one-on-one mentoring that began at an early age.

Simply put, once a kid has been raised to be dependent, to feel helpless in the face of larger, impersonal forces, it is extraordinarily difficult to change course. Waiting for another coal boom is not a plan, but policy-makers should also understand that economic and environmental regulations can carry enormous personal and social costs. Are Americans better or worse off now that it’s much harder to profitably mine coal? Is our nation truly “healthier” — spiritually and physically — now that miners draw disability checks rather than create energy?

Americans are a compassionate people. It’s tragic that our compassion is not only bankrupting our nation’s finances; it’s damaging the very spirit of the people we so want to help.


  • Comeon

    How do you felt about raising the minimum wage ?

  • Rozy

    I am reminded of Marvin Olasky’s insightful book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, in which he says the same things. Great post.

  • Galen

    Outstanding article, David! Thanks for putting it so bluntly! The organization I work with, Medical Ambassadors International ( does development work all over the world and we have witnessed first-hand the destructiveness of “relief” or “charity”. It is well intentioned, but as one person put it to me lately, “It’s made beggars out of us all.” Probably the only place relief is the right solution is in the face of some catastrophic event (typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics, mass exodus as a result of famine or war), but not for chronic situations that need what development has to offer.

  • Lee

    I do get some of what you are saying, however it is a myth that disablity is easy to get. They turn most people down the first time to discourage fakers. That is why we have a thriving business of disability lawyers. The fact is that you do not know why more people are on disability as correlation does not necessarilly mean causation. Not only that but the piddly amout of $720 a month is still well below poverty level.

    I find it very disturbing that so many Christians seem to write off those who legitamately need help. Perhaps that is not your intention but by focusing on what is wrong with the system rather than what is right about it then this gives rise to the idea that most people take advantage of the system. This is not true.

    Only 4% of the population is on Welfare. Beyond that many people who receive food stamps and other forms of goverment help are part of the “working poor.”

    I find it very interesting that you did not state the main reason stated in the article as to WHY many of the people in that area are not working: NO JOBS to be had.

    Unemployment and too-low wages are the main cause of our problems. This of course is worse in historically poverty-ridden areas such as in the Appalicians.
    My father was born in the Appalacians of West Virginia. When he was 14 his father decided to get out of there and moved to Los Angeles, California where the jobs were. When my father was old enough he joined the Navy and later went to college on the GI bill.

    It seems to me that the problem is not so much dependency but rather a characteristic of an isolated area where jobs are few. Actually for a little while my grandfather was recieving government assistance because he had TB. His wife died from it. Anyway he was heartily dumped on by his neighbors for doing that.

    The best solution would be to find a way to help people get out of those areas.
    At any rate I am rather tired of people claiming that the poor are at fault for being poor. ESPECIALLY when it comes from Christians.

    I know plenty of good honest hardworking people who just need a little help. I am disabled and I am tired of people dumping on me because of it. I have a chronic illness and would be fired the first week if I got a job. I am too exhausted and in pain to be able to work effeciently. Even right now it is taking me forever to write this.

    • comeon

      Excellent Lee. Well said. And funny thing is, many who cry foul on Welfare, food stamps, etc are also against raising the minimum wage. It’s ridiculous that our minimum wage is so low that working fulltime can still put one below the poverty level.

      • Lee

        The biggest “Welfare Queens/Kings” in this country are the Waltons.
        Say it ain’t true John Boy…*facepalm*

        Heard a good quote although I don’t know who first said it

        “Republicans moan, Republicans bitch..the Rich are too poor, and the Poor are too rich.”

    • Jerry

      It seems you have pre-conceived ideas and stero-types against how Christians think. Which are rather unfair and inaccurate. Many people in the Appalachian region are conservative Christians anyways. Regardless, the article is attacking govement instrusion which is against the coal industry and which creates an environment and mentality of dependency. He is not blaming people for being poor, that is a condescending and trite way to put it. Christians who have a sincere desire to help people be free and self sufficient , you judge. You cannot fix a problem until you recognize what factors contribute to the problem. True love and service to others brings freedom and not dependency.

  • americanwoman343

    So you’re suggesting that we should continue to mine and burn coal, until the Maldives and Philippines are under water, and condemn another generation of Easterners to asthma, just to keep those folks employed? (I don’t suppose the profits of coal companies have anything to do with the recommendation?) If there is no other livelihood to be had, perhaps we need to find a way to urge them to resettle. I agree it would be great if we had some actual public policy about these things, but in the current polarized times, that seems unlikely. But pursuing bad energy policy as a way to reduce poverty is just as dumb as not examining the “dependency culture.”

    • Father Mike

      Urge them to resettle? I suppose they are supposed to only take what they can carry and walk to this new place of promise? And being uneducated and/or poor, someone is going to give them a place to live (can’t pay utility deposits, rent deposits, etc) and a job (can’t pay any of the things they need until the first check)? What exactly do they gain by moving? The better solution is 2-fold. Get jobs in the area (one would think companies would jump at cheap labor) and make it so minimum wage is more than disability so it is worth taking. Minimum wage should at least equal the poverty rate. Minimum wage is $7.25/hr in many places. And most who make that are not getting full time work or benefits. Let us assume one gets $7.25/hr and works 30 hrs per week which is probably more than most get. The income before taxes is $11,310. Poverty for an adult is $9,400 which is very hard to justify in many places like California where rent is well over $1,000/mo all by itself. But even in a place where one could find really cheap rent like $350/mo, the rent alone takes half the income.