Poor Americans

Trip Gabriel, in 50 Years Into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back (NYT, 4/20/2014) paints a good picture of poor people in modern America, including the following excerpts (slightly reformatted):

Of West Virginia’s 55 counties, McDowell has the lowest median household income, $22,000; the worst childhood obesity rate; and the highest teenage birthrate. It is also reeling from prescription drug abuse. …
The sheriff’s wife, Georgia Muncy West, …one of 15 children, said that unlike many current families, hers remained intact even through the leanest times. …

Alma and Randy McNeely, both 50, tried life in Tennessee. But they returned to McDowell County to be close to their large extended family. The couple married when they were 16. In a family photo album, Ms. McNeely appears in her white wedding dress as if headed to the junior prom. Turning the album’s pages for a visitor, she apologized for its lack of captions. “Mama couldn’t write, so, you know, there ain’t no names in it,” she said. … After marrying, the couple had two children. Their daughter, Angela, gave birth at 14 and was expelled from a Christian school, her mother said. Now, Ms. McNeely is raising Angela’s daughter, Emalee Short, who is 15. … Another photo in the album shows Randy Jr., the McNeelys’ son, known as Little Man. Little Man dropped out of high school six months shy of graduation, “with me sitting here crying,” Ms. McNeely said. He has been in and out of jail but is one of the lucky ones who have found work, at a junkyard run by a family friend. …

Many in McDowell County acknowledge that depending on government benefits has become a way of life, passed from generation to generation. Nearly 47 percent of personal income in the county is from Social Security, disability insurance, food stamps and other federal programs. But residents also identify a more insidious cause of the current social unraveling: the disappearance of the only good jobs they ever knew, in coal mining. … Today, fewer than one in three McDowell County residents are in the labor force. The chief effort to diversify the economy has been building prisons. …But many residents have been skipped over for the well-paying jobs in corrections: They can’t pass a drug test.