Third-World America: 5 Insane Realities Of Appalachia
What do you picture when you think of Eastern Kentucky (as you so often do)? Likely hillbillies, moonshine, and crippling poverty. It's exactly like Justified, only with substantially fewer sexy lawmen. How accurate is that impression, though? We spoke with a few Eastern Kentucky residents about what life is really like in the poorest part of Appalachia. And they told us ...
Everyone Assumes We're All Crazy Hillbillies
Whenever people visit Eastern Kentucky, they automatically assume that the residents are just a bunch of uneducated hillbillies. While there is some backing to it -- only 17 percent have a college degree and only around 40 percent have a high school diploma -- not everyone is some backwoods hillfolk who spends the days squealing at tourists. Our anonymous source has been in Eastern Kentucky for all of his life, and he told us:
"I have a bachelor's degree from the University Of Kentucky, but many of my friends don't have more than a high school degree. We tend to hang around a gas station or restaurant a lot, and we get travelers coming in from all over the place. People from the South and Midwest are usually fine, but people from the East Coast tend to gawk. We apparently have thick accents, and some of these people laugh at the counter when they hear it. Some just come up to you and ask in the accent where they can get moonshine and chitlins and grits.
"Sure. There's a grits place just two miles that way; take a left
into the fucking lake. Can't miss it."
"It gets worse than that, though. Two of my friends work at a convenience store and have some of these people come in to get a bunch of things, say for $20, then put down a $10 bill and say that's enough for everything, the logic being that they assumed that they didn't know how to count. It's incredibly demeaning."
Cracked has mentioned the unintentional bias that most Americans have toward people with Southern accents. He has experienced his fair share of it:
"Our previous sheriff was on TV once. He showed up on Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot to talk about how he saw a Sasquatch once. Yes, I am serious. They even titled the episode 'Moonshine And Bigfoot,' presumably because they still had a few stereotypical Kentuckian insults left in the bottom of the barrel."
"That's almost what we're going for in this episode,
but could we add a jug with X's on it, too?"
Then there's Bill Sparkman, a census-taker who, in 2009, was found dead in Clay County, Kentucky, tied to a tree with the word "FED" scrawled on his chest in black marker. The media reaction was immediate, with several news agencies speculating that the murder was committed by insane hillbilly anti-government zealots in the Eastern Kentucky area. Then the police figured out that Sparkman had committed suicide and staged the scene to make it look like a murder. Oops. The story was over by then, but it was just more damage to the reputation of a place that wasn't exactly rolling in rep to begin with.
Moonshining Still Goes On, And It's Actually Helpful
A lot of counties here are dry, and possession on a Sunday is illegal in many places. So, yes, people resort to moonshine, even though it's illegal. You outlaw booze and only outlaws will have booze. Sure, bathtub hooch with methanol in it can make people go blind. Or die. But brewed safely, it can be a lucrative career move that actually helps the community. First, moonshiners support local businesses by buying sugar, grain, stills, bottles, and other bootlegging essentials. They also employ workers (under the table) and, of course, supply booze.
Which, in turn, supports other businesses, such as defense attorneys.
Our anonymous moonshinin' source explained:
"It gets to the point that locals just flat-out refuse to talk with authorities because we are often one of the few businesses still left. Plus, residents who need to make a quick buck help us make it, bottle it, and, for the larger stills, drive it to bars as far away as Knoxville. I know a few times that liquor control people were in town that no one told them anything -- they would just say they didn't know of anyone who did that, even though everyone either worked for us, drank our moonshine, or had us pay them for goods or services. We may not be the most legal business in town, but it helps bring money to local businesses ..."
"This is full of sweet tea; I just like the bottle."
That might explain why moonshining has gone increasingly legit in recent years. One company, Ole Smoky, bases their liquor on traditional Appalachian 'shine and is one of the larger employers in Gatlinburg. So they took all the fun, quirky aspects of underground distilling and just whitewashed out all the blindness and shotgun murders.
It's Like Going Back In Time
Our anonymous source said, "My town has almost no chain stores. Instead of a Great Clips, it's just some guy's barbershop. Instead of a Safeway or Giant Eagle, it's a town grocery."
Another source, Ashe, asks, "Where do you go if you want a quick bite to eat? What if you need something in the middle of the night? You probably answered McDonald's or Burger King for the first one and Walmart or Walgreens for the second one, right? We have none of those. ... In fact, a huge amount of Eastern Kentucky is what's known as a food desert. Nutritious food is difficult to obtain due to its cost or scarcity. Kentucky has a lot of farmers, sure, but most of what they grow is tobacco, and that is not good eatin'."
No amount of ranch dressing will ever turn this into a salad.
If you still think those small-town values outweigh the cons, maybe don't pawn your Prius for a pickup just yet. Ashe again:
"Some people here have trouble getting running water and electricity. A few people just go without electricity and just use a generator for whenever they absolutely need it. A young girl who was a friend of my sister-in-law went for years without running water because she had a heart problem and the medical bills got so high that the family had to do without. They just occasionally bought jugs of water at the store or borrowed from neighbors.
"And, yeah, some people still have outhouses around here. In most cases, they're just for decoration (because people are really fond of the times when they had to take a midnight dump in a cold wooden box, I guess), but I'm reasonably sure some of them still get used occasionally. Also a real thing? Actual tar paper shacks. If you've got the land and a few basic supplies, you can build one yourself on the cheap."
Offering all the wind and cold protection of a fortified cardboard box.
Anonymous goes on to say, "Even the laws are old. Our liquor laws are straight out of prohibition, and our gun laws are pretty much 'do what you want.' Even things technically against the law, like bringing a gun into a bar, are just overlooked by the cops. ... A lot of these towns, if you just took out the more modern cars and modern logos, you would swear you went back into the 1950s."
Sweet! We know where we're holding our annual Back To The Future LARP festival this year.
Welfare Scams Are The Only Option For A Lot Of People
In its heyday, Eastern Kentucky was ride or die for the coal industry. Unfortunately, expensive, non-renewable energy that slowly transforms the planet into a circle of Hell has fallen out of favor for some reason. As a result, production has dropped dramatically. Clay County, for example, employed only 54 people during the first quarter of 2014 in its once obscene mines. At that time, unemployment there had reached nearly 13 percent. Nobody's really stepped in to replace those jobs. So the only option left for many residents is to use -- and yes, sometimes abuse -- welfare.
"The New York Times found that some parents here take their kids out of literacy classes to keep $700 disability benefits coming in," Anonymous says. "One of the people who went to my high school made money by getting food with food stamps, selling it discounted to families in the area needing a cheap meal, then using the resulting money for the basis of a 'buyer/seller' job for tax purposes [and] paying for food he actually ate from the welfare, not food stamps, he got."
"Income: Dependent on how diligently you check the math on this form."
Keep in mind this little start-up wasn't making the guy rich -- it was only keeping him slightly more comfortably below the poverty line.
"There are no real jobs or jobs people can easily do [or] don't need a degree for, so they find ways to juke the system," he says. "It's both abusing the hell out of the system but also using the system this way as a means to survive."
It's a little harder to get indignant when it's a scam for basic food and shelter.
You know what they say: "Starving in the middle of fucking nowhere is the mother of invention."
Many People Are Slowly Dying
If you grew up in a small town, you know what happens when there's nothing to do -- namely, unprotected sex in the Hardee's parking lot and the occasional bout of angry warehouse dancing. But also, just, all the drugs. Eastern Kentucky is a nationwide leader in not only unemployment but also prescription drug abuse and crystal meth addiction. Huh, do you think those things might be related somehow?
There's also that whole "food desert" problem: You either dine out at the 7-Eleven or burn a bunch of cash driving two towns over to the only grocery store with fresh food. If you don't have that money to start with, you end up with a population where the obesity rate is 50 percent.
Where "fresh" means "fryer oil has been changed more recently than the governor."
Unlike the rest of the country, where life expectancy is going up, it's actually going down in Eastern Kentucky. In very real terms, the only way to survive is to get out -- it's practically a post-apocalyptic theme park. Actually, that's a free idea for any aspiring entrepreneurs who may be reading. It seems like it would solve a lot of problems.
For more from Ashe, check out Weird Shit Blog and his book, The Book of Word Records, available now! Manna remains a poor person at heart and often tweets about it. Evan V. Symon is the interview finder guy for the personal experience team at Cracked. Have an awesome job/experience you would like to see as an article? Hit us up at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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