cut on the bias

keeping an eye on the spins and weirdness of media, crime and everyday life

Friday, November 07, 2008

Home Sweet Home

I grew up in Clay County, in eastern Kentucky, in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. My ancestors have lived in those hills for more than 200 years, since William Cornett was given a land grant in what was then western Virginia. The land grant was a reward for William's service in the Revolutionary War. Kentucky still has more Cornett citizens than any other state in the US, although Cornetts are more spread out now than in the 1800s.

My upbringing was solidly middle class. Both of my parents were educators before they retired, and all four of my grandparents had college degrees and decent jobs. My childhood home is a traditional brick ranch out in the country, halfway up one of the low hills that cluster closely in that part of Kentucky. My parents still live there. We went to church weekly, ate supper together most nights, and had regular extended family gatherings. It was a good way to grow up.

The context, however, was somewhat different than average. Eastern Kentucky has always struggled economically, and when small farms went by the wayside there was little to take their place. FDR's New Deal swooped in to the rescue, followed by LBJ's efforts to lift up the poor by giving them more for free. The result is that many - perhaps even half or more - of the county's residents receive some kind of federal aid. The local term is "draw". That leads to conversations like this: "So what are you doing these days?" "Well, I draw." Lawyers build their entire practices on squeezing more government assistance from Washington. A scourge of idle hands, ignorant minds and stunted lives eats away any hope for a better future. Moonshine stills gave way to marijuana patches until hunters are afraid to go into certain parts of the county. Many young people who have the opportunity move away to pursue careers where opportunities and salaries are greater. Many others who stay in the county bury themselves deeply in meth and booze and, eventually, the red clay earth. And when your father's father's father's father began the unending cycle of "drawing" as the family's main source of income, what do you know of the path to a different life?

The South, especially in the Appalachian regions, is known for violence. Research has shown that the South is the only region of the country that predicts violence; in simple terms, that means that a person from the South is more likely to commit violence than people from other parts of the country. Some theories say the violence is a legacy from the rough Irish and Scottish immigrants who came to the US and brought their independent, clannish ways with them. Some theories say it is a holdover from the high feelings raised during the Civil War, where many families and communities were divided. Others say it's just isolation and ignorance stewing together until they formed a toxic environment.

For whatever reason, the Clay County of my childhood and family history was a violent one. In the 1970s one of my dad's first cousins was murdered. In the late 1930s my maternal grandfather was involved in a genuine shootout in the county seat's downtown; his brother was killed, as were three other men. One of my sister's college roommates lost four members of her family - brother, pregnant sister in law, and parents - to murderous ambushes by another local family. The brother had testified against a member of the family who then killed him and his family. A woman I knew - she occasionally attended church with us - shot her husband to death when she found he was cheating on her. For a while, after I moved away, I would ask my mom each time I called if someone else had been killed. The answer was often yes. Once two bodies were found stuffed in the trunk of an abandoned car a couple of miles from their house. It turned out to be a drug deal gone bad. Those are only a few examples.

The violence around me didn't touch me, for the most part, but it did cause me as an adult to think about why I had more contact with this kind of violence than most middle class Americans. I decided it was because in a county as small and rural as Clay County, with many families having been there for generations, there weren't the kinds of social divisions that many communities have. After a while, nearly everyone is related to nearly everyone else, and those you aren't related to you know - and your dad knew their dad. Anyone lost to violence or drugs wasn't a John Doe in a neighborhood I'd never driven through; it was Tom's aunt's brother-in-law's boy. The famed Six Degrees of Separation is rarely more than two degrees in Clay County.

When you come from that environment, government policies that are essentially social engineering are not theoretical concepts. They are often cause for the effect you see around you. So what is the effect of generations of supporting people in subsistence lives rather than helping them learn responsibility and ways to improve those lives? Lack of education. Rampant drug use. Lives with great potential leached out by well-meaning promises and programs that remove the incentives to achieve as individuals and communities. Ignorance is not stupidity. Inertia is not absence of the ability to act. People from eastern Kentucky have proven they have the capability to excel in every context. What many don't have is the ability to get out from under the government's well-meaning thumb.

And here is a graphic representation of that effect. Clay County, my childhood and ancestral home, has the fourth lowest median income of any county in the US. It has the 18th lowest per capita income among US counties. And it has the lowest per capita income of any county in the US with a non-Hispanic white majority.

One thing that confirms, for anyone with lingering doubts, is that race and ethnicity have nothing to do intrinsically with low income, low achievement, drug use or violence. Clay County is historically a very homogeneous community; in 2000, there were only about 1200 blacks in a population of 24,000, and fewer than 100 Asians. I can pretty much assure you that the Asians are doctors of Indian descent working in the local hospital and clinics. So the effects you see are driven by behavior in the white population there.

It is telling that the poorest communities in our nation are those that the government has "helped" the most. The fact that the fourth poorest county in the nation is nearly all white people is also quite telling. What does Clay County have in common with an Indian reservation or an inner city black community? Intense government nanny-ism. What does Clay County have in common with the most affluent counties in the nation? A majority white population. What has being white caused? Nothing of apparent benefit. What has being nannied caused? Destruction.

As we enter into a new era of Democrat leadership in Washington DC - in the White House and in both houses of Congress - it's important to consider the legacy of big government and federal nannyism in our nation. It has not been a good thing, on balance. And having grown up in Clay County, KY; worked in Jersey City, NJ; and living now outside Birmingham, AL while working for a social service agency, I think I have a good sense of its effects.

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The only irony in the mix: I now live in Shelby County, Alabama, 87th on the list of top income counties nationwide. In my defense, I live in the southern portion where we're still more country mouse than city mouse, with commensurate pay.

Also, although I shouldn't have to say this, I want to point out that not everyone in Clay County draws, and some who draw have genuine need that would warrant help in any context. Many current Clay County citizens are competent, educated and hard working. Many are competent and hard working although not well educated. There are wonderful things about the county and its people, and I was blessed to grow up there. I'm proud of my county and my state, for many good reasons. That doesn't cloud my understanding that there is much that needs fixing, and a major cause of the damage that needs fixing is government nannyism.

UPDATE: The essay above discusses how liberal government policies pushes people down and holds them there. This post indicates that once they've got you there, they'll slap you around for anything they don't like about your behavior.

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