The Last Days of the Appalachian Poverty Tour
Our tour guide meets us in the Athens County, Ohio, parking lot of what is locally known as the County Home but might have once been called the “poorhouse,” an old redbrick building that at one time housed about 20 people in need, and now serves as headquarters for Athens County Job and Family Services. The sky is unbroken and white, and green fields flank the property. There is some delay in getting out of the parking lot because of a mowing tractor barreling down the drive, but eventually we turn the car on to Route 13, then down a series of small country roads.
These are roads that I’ve been down before, many times; so has the photographer with me today, Rich-Joseph Facun. We both live in Athens County, the poorest county in the state. Our guide for today, longtime local resident Jack Frech, has accompanied national journalists and politicians down these same roads for nearly 40 years, pointing out the trailers, the junk piles, the children on porches with nothing to play with, the men with no cars and nothing to do—trying to get these outsiders to see rural poverty up close and convince them to care.
Before retiring in 2014, Jack was the director of Athens County Job and Family Services for 33 years. Originally hired as a caseworker in the 1970s at what was then called the Welfare Department, Jack has always looked for ways to help people in poverty. For decades, he testified at nearly every state budget hearing in the state capital of Columbus about poverty in southeastern Ohio. He brought residents to the hearings so they could speak for themselves, thinking that firsthand testimony from those living in difficult circumstances might sway the argument for supporting emergency cash assistance, public childcare, disability assistance, and Ohio’s General Assistance program, which makes cash available to low-income adults ineligible for other safety-net programs. (General Assistance would be dramatically reduced by the state in 1995.)
But, “as time went on, the legislators treated these people so poorly and so badly, that I just couldn’t subject them to that anymore,” says Jack as we drive. Whenever legislators knew the poor people were coming, they would break out the Ohio State Troopers to guard the halls.
So instead of bringing people with experiences of poverty to the city, Jack decided to take city people to rural poverty.
In 1889, an 18-page article by journalist Jacob Riis called “How the Other Half Lives” was published in Scribner magazine, illustrating for the first time the devastating extent of urban poverty in New York City, and prompting the city’s first notable legislation to improve dire tenement conditions. During the Great Depression, photographers and journalists working for the Farm Security Administration traveled the country documenting rural poverty as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, showing the need for his New Deal programs. Though the photography wing of the FSA operated for less than ten years—between 1935 and 1944—11 photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, made more than 175,000 black-and-white photo negatives of rural poverty.
By the early 1960s, about one in five Americans lived in poverty. In 1962, Michael Harrington, a professor of political science and a founding member of the Democratic Socialists of America, published his extensive study on poverty, The Other America. A February 1963 review of the book in The New Yorker is thought to have brought the book to the attention of President John F. Kennedy, who vowed to take up anti-poverty legislation during his term in office. Following Kennedy’s assassination nine months later, Lyndon B. Johnson was insistent on seeing that promise through, declaring a “war on poverty” in his January 8, 1964, State of the Union address.
In April 1964, Johnson set off on a six-state tour with stops in the Appalachian region in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. The tour was designed in part to promote the newly created Economic Opportunity Act, the goal of which was to increase educational and job opportunities, and develop the safety net for the elderly and poorest of Americans.
President Johnson had himself grown up in rural poverty in Johnson City, Texas (the town was named after a distant cousin), and he wanted bring national attention to the people who lived in similar circumstances. On his tour, Johnson visited the eastern Kentucky cabin of unemployed sawmill operator Tom Fletcher, father of eight, and asked Fletcher about the $400 he’d earned the previous year and his struggle to find new employment. Among Johnson’s other stops were an auto mechanics class at Kentucky’s Mayo State Vocational and Technical School (where his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, visited the trainee beauticians), and the Riverside Apartment complex, on a bank of the Tennessee River in Knoxville, where the New York Times reported that he spoke with several residents, including those who were no longer able to work due to disability.
Johnson also stopped in Athens County, Ohio, visiting the small town of Nelsonville, once the site of a flourishing coal community, as well as Ohio University in the town of Athens. There, he gave a speech in the grassy quad outside the auditorium. “Poverty hides its face behind a mask of affluence,” he said. “But I call upon you to help me go out there and unmask it, take that mask off of that face of affluence and let the world see what we have, and let the world do something about it.”
Johnson’s Athens speech, according to a 2014 paper by University of Kentucky professor Ronald D. Eller, was the first to link “the campaign to eliminate poverty with a larger crusade to build a Great Society for all Americans.” In the speech, Johnson called on the crowd, made up mostly of students, to “build the Great Society … a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled. Where no man who wants work will fail to find it.” One student, whose high school band had serenaded Johnson that day, recalled the speech many years later in an interview with Compass, an Ohio University publication: “We didn’t know we were poor until Lyndon told us we were.”
Johnson’s tour ended in August 1964 with the signing of Economic Opportunity Act. It established Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), which recruited and trained volunteers to work in areas of poverty, and the Jobs Corp, which provided job training. He also passed legislation that made food stamps a permanent benefit and expanded Social Security and access to food stamps, later rebranded as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In 1965, Johnson would amend the Social Security Act to create Medicare and Medicaid for health care for the poor and elderly.
Several of these programs had long been under consideration, but the legislation was met with opposition from Republicans, who called it “an election-year gimmick.” Still, the bill passed 61–34 in the Senate. In April 1965, one year after Johnson had launched his anti-poverty tour, over half a million people participated in the food stamp program. About eight years after the anti-poverty tour and subsequent legislation, poverty rates fell to their lowest in America since 1958, dropping from 17.3 percent in 1965 to 11.1 percent in 1973.
Whenever legislators heard that people living in poverty were coming to the State House, they would break out the Ohio State Troopers to guard the halls.
Today, the impact of 55 years of anti-poverty legislation is difficult to reconcile in places like Appalachian Ohio. The 1980s and ’90s saw increased criticism of federal aid and scrutiny of people living in poverty. Multiple factors have conspired to keep people poor in central Appalachia, often for generations, where simple, everyday tasks are often untenable. Some of the villages are a 30-minute drive from a grocery store, so people often buy packaged food from local gas stations; not everyone has a running car, and no public transportation goes out to the deep country. About 100 houses in or near Nelsonville are without running water, says Jack Frech, because they are so far behind on the water bills. There is less of everything in this region, including work. Across the country, minimum wage has not kept pace with inflation, and in this part of Appalachia, few industries have come in to fill the gaps left behind by declining coal and manufacturing.
As we drive, Jack tells me that the poverty in Athens is now the worst he’s seen in over 40 years; this, he believes, is because of shrinking benefits, new restrictions—including work requirements, which keep many more people from receiving public financial assistance—and an increase in drug use. Grandparents and other extended family members are raising the children of parents who are ill, incarcerated, or deceased from overdoses related to opioid use.
There is a reason for what you see in Appalachian Ohio—the trailers, the junk piles, the compounds with broken-down trucks—but it’s not always obvious. It’s not an easy answer, not one you can glean from an article by an out-of-state reporter, or a memoir by a venture capitalist. Not without talking to someone making a life here. Maybe not without living this life yourself.
Without seeing poverty relief reach central Appalachia, and unable to gain much attention from anyone outside of the region, Jack Frech decided to start his own poverty tours. Starting in the 1970s, he began driving journalists and politicians around Athens County. He would take them to some of the same places President Johnson had visited a decade earlier, like Nelsonville, but he also took visitors down more hidden roads, away from the highway and into the hollers where families often crowded into trailers or the shotgun shacks that were formerly coal company housing. Jack would take his visitors through the area known as the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds”—a string of small, connected coal villages such as Glouster, Millfield, Jacksonville, and Chauncey.
Jack encouraged his visitors to speak with the local people who resided in the trailers and shacks, people living lives outsiders might not understand. Jack didn’t stop at random houses, but at places where he knew the occupants and knew them well. He would ask these residents ahead of time if they had any interest in being contacted by the media, and would only stop at homes where people had agreed beforehand to be interviewed.
Eventually, national media began to reach out to Jack about the tours. In 1991, newscaster Peter Jennings came with a crew from ABC News and spent several weeks in the area. “We stopped in a place that was really rough,” Jack says, “and it became clear that the woman who lived there had some functional-level issues. Jennings said to me, ‘This is terrible, Jack. Is this typical?’ And I said no ... and he told the folks to shut off the cameras. He went and talked with the lady; he never used it in the story, never talked about it. He made a big point of saying to me, ‘We’re looking for the typical situation, and we won’t be able to say this is typically how people live.’”
Sensitive and nuanced reporting of poverty is not common among the national media. In the past few years, the poverty in Athens County—which has a population of a little more than 66,000, when the state university is in session—has been described in stories by the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, and USA Today with dire headlines such as “America’s Poorest Towns” and “I Feel Forgotten: A Decade of Struggle in Rural Ohio.”
The poverty tour itself has also returned to the national stage. In August 2011, talk show host Tavis Smiley and Harvard philosophy professor Cornel West set out on a nine-state poverty tour, starting in Wisconsin and ending a week later in Memphis, Tennessee, holding town halls which were also attended by protesters who railed against Smiley and West’s criticisms of President Obama. In 2017, Philip Alston, special rapporteur to the United Nations, took what he called a “fact-finding tour” into American poverty, visiting California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C., over the course of 15 days, and issuing a scathing report that described scenes of extreme poverty that “are shockingly at odds with [the United States’] immense wealth and its founding commitment to human rights.”
Professors across the country load journalism students into vans and drive them down rural routes, pointing out trailers and compounds like the ones that dot my home county. But observing run-down, crowded housing and difficult ways of life—watching people fill plastic jugs from the town fountain in Buchtel, Ohio, not knowing that the water runs from a coal stream—what does that do?
When I first meet Jack, he tells me he stopped giving poverty tours years ago and has generally stopped talking to the media about them. He says that if we take this tour together, he won’t stop at anyone’s home; he doesn’t want to expose anyone like that again. He tells me he’s agreeing to do this one last tour only because of who I am: a single, disabled mother with my own lived experiences of poverty.
I was born in rural Indiana and raised in rural Ohio, a few hours north of Athens. I became pregnant shortly after moving to Athens to attend Ohio University, and I became a single mother shortly after my child was born, when my then-husband left. Single motherhood is a huge risk factor for sending women into poverty, though not as a great a factor as being a woman of color. Seventy percent of those living in poverty in this country are women and children, and I am among the at least 35 percent of single mothers raising their children in poverty; since I was laid off from my job this past spring, I have been unable to find a full-time job with the extremely limited childcare available to me. My child, like most of my relatives before me, is growing up poor in the country.
Jack and I had spoken about the circumstances that can lead to poverty. Jack believes that it comes down to families disintegrating, being torn to pieces: a parent leaving, someone getting sick, someone losing a job or a battle with addiction, a grandparent on limited or no income taking in young children. In this sense, poverty is always a tragedy. It is always a breaking before the breaking.
For our tour with Jack, there is no map or set itinerary. Rich and I expect to see places we are familiar with, and we do. The Little Cities of Black Diamonds blur into each other; it’s not always clear when you’ve left one village and entered another. Maybe there’s a sign with a town name if you go on the main road, but usually you just cross a railroad track or come around a bend of the Hocking River, and you’re in another village: small, wooded, likely without a grocery store. Rich and I have been to these places before; it’s Jack who knows the people who live in the homes we have been driving past for years.
On the road, Jack again expresses his conflicted feelings about bringing strangers to speak with local people, explaining that his hesitancy seemed to grow the longer he led his tours. At the time, everyone he met knew he was in charge of benefits for the county—in a sense, he was, as he put it, “the keeper of the last dime for these folks. So they mostly were afraid of me … after a while it really started to bother me. I thought, ‘This is just like taking people to the zoo or something. I just won’t do that anymore, I won’t.’” He grips the steering wheel hard, his light eyes focused on the middle distance. He misses the turn for our exit ramp.
We head to Chauncey first, a village in Athens County with a population of a little over 1,000. Chauncey has often made the national news for its flooding, a seasonal disaster which frequently cuts off the village from the rest of the county. Chauncey is home to the local school food pantry, housed in a former elementary school building. Although well-rated, the school was closed several years ago, after the high school and auto shop were shuttered. Chauncey has a history of trash problems, due in part to the refuse that washes in on floodwaters, and rat problems, due in part to the trash.
In Chauncey, Rich meets 16-year-old Hailey Sands, when he stops later in the afternoon and asks permission to take her picture. There are “no job opportunities out here for anyone under 18,” she tells him. Even remote work is not a viable option for a place without reliable, affordable internet access. People drive in from the country to the Dairy Queen a few miles away in Glouster, just to use their free wifi. You’ll see people clustered in the parking lot of the public libraries across the county, after hours, for the same reason.
Here, trailers meant to be temporary end up being lived in for decades, because there are no other housing options. “A lot of these cars don’t work; people hang on to them for parts,” Jack says as we drive by a hill studded with vehicles and junk. The junk has a purpose too: to be used again when appliances break or something like a broken bed frame or bent bike needs to be jerry-rigged. “There’s no room to store anything in the trailers, so everything they can, they put outside. They have to, because there’s just no room inside.”
Homes meant for single families sometimes house multiple generations, with grandparents stepping in to care for children. Parents often have a couple part-time jobs, in food service, retail, or maybe at the Pepsi bottling plant or hospital, but, as Jack says, “They still can’t afford housing, so they have to double and triple up.”
“After a while it really started to bother me,” says Jack. “I thought, ‘This is just like taking people to the zoo.’ I just won’t do that anymore, I won’t.’”
Why not just move, leave the poor place where you grew up? It’s a complicated question that comes down both to money and family. Moving requires savings for a security deposit and gas for a rental truck—as well as a place to go. Moving also means leaving the support system of familiarity and family: family who often depend on each other—and only each other—for food, money, housing, and childcare. It’s difficult to get away. There’s not a lot to get away to. There are strong strings holding you. “We’re born here, we’re stuck here,” says Hailey Sands.
Difficulties also include navigating the complicated benefits system: programs intended to help people in poverty and yet seemingly designed, at every turn, to thwart them. “Over my career, the thing that’s really changed is the whole safety net,” Jack says. “They just keep adding more requirements or more documentation; you have to bring in proof of everything you ever did or anyone you ever knew, or this ridiculous amount of stuff, knowing that some people won’t be able to find that.”
Jack cites the increase in paperwork and work requirements for many types of assistance as hurdles that are much more difficult for the elderly, those with disabilities, single mothers without childcare, and people without access to the internet. “All these things are barriers they put up because they don’t really want to help people,” he says. He adds that, even for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a federal cash assistance program specifically for people who are disabled or elderly, “it takes an average of a year and a half to get approved.”
Though maligned by President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly claimed poor people are “taking advantage of the system,” federal assistance exists for a reason: to help the very poorest of people—many of whom are children. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, “children remain the poorest age group in the United States of America,” with nearly half of the 12.8 million American children in poverty living in what is known as “extreme poverty”: less than half of the poverty level. In 2019, the federal poverty guideline was $25,750 for a family of four.
Jack talks about the near impossibility of committing benefits fraud: “The whole idea of welfare fraud is such a small, small issue anymore because it is so automated.” Any attempt to leave off or misrepresent earned income would be caught, because everything is done on computers. Yet a few days after our tour, the Trump administration announced its proposal to raise the threshold of how poverty is defined, which would potentially lead to the loss of food benefits for over 200,000 people—including 100,000 children who would be denied free or reduced-price school lunches.
We drive down into Oakdale Hollow, a holler where Jack brought the Reverend Jesse Jackson when the two drove through Athens County in the late ’90s: “We’re all in this big huge bus, big massive bus. And there’s another bus behind us full of press people from all over the country. Jesse gets out and goes around knocking on doors. Some guy in a little camper opens his door up and there’s Jesse Jackson standing there, the world press standing right behind him. This guy comes out, he’s got no shirt on, he’s scratching himself, and he says ‘Hey, what’s going on? Hey Jesse! How are you doing?’”
We don’t stop at the small camper, located where Jackson had passed by, laundry hanging brightly on a rope between trees. A brick shed, only two and a half walls still standing, serves as a kind of larder with some shelves. There are toys in the mud and grass, a toddler-size truck and a plastic horse. Jack isn’t sure who lives here anymore. Nobody’s outside on this hazy day.
What did the people who served as witnesses, who gave their testimony to the crowds passing through, get out of this? Jack says local people agreed to speak to the poverty tours because they wanted to try to do something proactive—not only to improve their own situations, but to improve the situations of others: “They’d say, ‘Sure, if it's going to help the cause, we’ll do it.”
Today, Jack emphasizes that if people have their pictures taken by the media, they need to receive something in return: professional portraits of their family, their children. This is something Rich already does in his work as a photographer. Later this afternoon, he makes plans to return to the home of 90-year-old Roberta Carter of Nelsonville, to drop off a printed-out copy of this article for her.
Decades after President Johnson’s visit, the Fletchers of Kentucky told a reporter for the Lexington Herald Leader that they regretted letting the president speak with—and film—them in their cabin back in 1964. The family cabin, a solid-looking though small home, was insulted in the national media, where it was described with words such as ramshackle and shack. The family themselves inadvertently became the face of Appalachian poverty, and it was hard to escape that role, even generations later. On the 30th anniversary of Johnson’s War on Poverty, Fletcher was interviewed by the Associated Press and said he was “getting tired of it.” He died ten years later, in 2004. At that time, one of his sons still lived in the family home: that maligned cabin was strong enough to last for 40 years.
As far as the stories that came from the national media about the Athens poverty tours, Jack says that “the comments they had probably were at least 50 percent negative. Some poor mom was struggling, living in a house with 14 people, including a bunch of little kids ... half the comments were about the fact that she lit up a cigarette while they were interviewing her. She lit up a cigarette. And that was it: ‘If she really cared about those kids, how can she afford cigarettes?’”
Failure of empathy seems at times to be a failure of imagination—the circumstances, for example, that would see someone working multiple jobs and still not be able to afford housing; the situation where a single mother in poverty would have beautiful, manicured nails. In that case, she had done them herself—but after a story ran featuring the woman’s picture, “the feedback they got was, ‘Well, if she can afford to get her nails done …’ There are people who can't imagine doing their own nails ... that’s all they wanted to talk about. They didn’t want to talk about the fact that she was working two jobs and was still homeless.”
Why not just move, leave the place where you grew up? Moving requires savings for a security deposit and gas for a rental truck—as well as a place to go.
Empathy is also short-lived. After a story runs about poverty in Appalachian Ohio, donations pour in, but only for a time. “We had a story about poor people having to dig their own graves because they can’t afford funerals. Right away, some guy is donating headstones and caskets.” They once received 20 Nintendo sets for a child who’d asked for one. After stories ran about Athens County children, donations were made to establish college funds. But did any of these kids ever get to go to college?
While money came temporarily from viewers and readers, lawmakers haven’t budged. For decades, Ohio has been including less and less aid for the poorest of its residents in state budgets. According to Policy Matters Ohio, the number of children receiving help from the state’s emergency cash assistance program has nearly halved since 2010, with 50,000 adults receiving less assistance—which has more to do with increased restrictions on eligibility rather than with declining need. In 2017, Ohio completely eliminated Disability Financial Assistance, intended to help the very poorest of people enduring those average waits of a year and a half for Social Security Disability Insurance approval.
“We decided a long, long time ago that we only wanted to help people we thought were deserving,” Jack tells me. “Who we think is deserving changes all the time to make sure that there’s always somebody we’re not going to help. A lot of that is just deep, deep racism. That underlies a lot of our welfare policy—you can just go on and on about all of the people that we don’t care about, that we don't feel like we need to share with.”
If looking at poverty firsthand doesn’t make people want to end it, what will?
Maybe, we joke darkly in the car as we roll over the hills, we need wealth tourism: sightseers can gawk at McMansions and gated communities, stop to ask the most privileged of Americans why they aren’t willing to help other people.
In the car, on this one last poverty tour, Jack, Rich, and I open up about our own struggles. We share experiences of homelessness, of single parenting, of being on assistance, of being rejected for job after job, of being denied unemployment benefits. But our car is not the world.
To discount the sadness, illness, frustration, and resignation of poverty is to misrepresent the struggle of just trying to survive in a world that wants you dead. But also missing in a drive-by view of poverty is the complexity: the ingenuity and selflessness that are hallmarks of life in Appalachia. Nelsonville hosts community dinners. The school food pantry in Chauncey is open to all, no proof of income needed. Both Glouster and Athens are home to free skate parks. The splash pad in the new Athens County swimming pool—a large cooling-off and play area for children—is free. Nelsonville has a free, top-rated theater camp and after-school music program for local kids. These aren’t things you can see on a poverty tour.
We make one final stop at a new place in Chauncey, Big Bubba’s Tiki Hut, a kind of general store that advertises ice cream and free internet, and has vinyl couches on the open porch where anyone can sit or play cards. A man walking along the road with a woman drops his iced coffee drink, clearly just purchased from the Marathon gas station. The glass bottle shatters in the gravel. We’ve been there. We know he probably won’t be able to afford another. Not today. Maybe not tomorrow either. He picks up the pieces carefully from the road. We get in the car and drive back the way we came.