Photos by Patrick O’Dell
Photos by Patrick O’Dell
Connie Necessary [Kentucky Works employment specialist]:
In dealing with these people, we have to change the way they look at things. We have talented and skilled people here. They are far from being ignorant. They just need a push in the right direction.
You may have someone that really does not want to go to work, but you just need to keep talking to them and supporting them. I’ll have a single mother come in and say, “I don’t have any skills.” If you’re a mother, you’ve got skills. You can cook, sew, and clean. Those are skills. But they don’t look at it that way. They say, “I don’t have any education, therefore I’m nothing.”
Vice: Do the really poor people here have biases against the townspeople who are trying to change things? I bet some of them do.
I think it can make them feel more separate. It’s as though they have no part in the changes that might affect them. Often they don’t vote, so they feel like somebody else is making decisions in the county.
We don’t have consistency. I started Bible schools at two different towns here, where we’d get them for a week and take them out on boats in the lake, do all kinds of things. But then we wouldn’t see them for a year. They’d get back up into their hollers and all the enthusiasm would be drained away. We don’t have anything that continues. We need a yearlong program.
Sometimes our schools put too much emphasis on sports. I had a guy working for me who had gone to school in Johnson County, just next door to here. When I got him, he’d finished high school and had a diploma, and he couldn’t read or write. He was the best quarterback they ever had, so he got through.
We started an intern program at the bank 20 years ago. We take students from the county high schools and let them work for us. They earn some money while they work at the bank, but they also get to learn. We’ve had local leaders, the governor, authors, and more come in and talk to the interns.
We also need to work as a region—not just with each county on its own. We need Appalachia to work together as a region.
You can look around these counties and see people who you may put a poverty label on, but not all of them are dissatisfied. Right or wrong, some are happy with the simple life. We want them to do better as a whole, but in some cases they’re doing what they want.
To me, jobs are the key to allowing people to get out of poverty. Still, if you’re offered a service job at minimum wage or slightly above, and you’ve got one or two kids that you have to get to school, maybe you’re a single parent, and if you can go out and make $12,000 a year working—if you compare that to what you might get on public assistance, there isn’t much incentive. It’s a real process to break that family tradition of being on assistance.
Vice: Is it possible to get small businesses to return here?
I have a friend who’s not from here, but moved to Inez with her family about two years ago. More than anything in the world, she wants to own a café in the downtown area. Something simple with a limited menu like bagels and coffee in the mornings. When she goes out and tries to seek advice on finances or work on a business plan, she is always told, “It won’t work here.” I think the statistics are limiting the people who want to start small businesses here.
Vice: So they’re being scared out of even trying. What about getting big corporations to move to town?
We would love nothing more than to have a company come in and fill up our spec building and create 500 jobs and put these people to work. But sometimes it needs to start small.
Vice: Maybe the federal government needs to send Appalachia more money…
Any of us would say we want more, but is more really the best answer? A lot of people here have a lot of pride, and that needs to be overcome. But is more better? I mean, does it make it easier? People can still learn the system and work it.
But as far as more federal aid? Sure. We could use it to continue building up the infrastructure. Improve the roads and electric and water lines.
We only have one resource here and that’s coal.
Vice: Coal is pretty important.
It’s been our backbone for years. We’ve tried to diversify, but it’s hard to do that when you’ve got that mainstay. The number of years in which we can mine coal easily and efficiently is numbered.
We have to figure out how to produce small businesses here. Agriculture, for example.
I started some greenhouses in Jackson County and they’re still in business after 30 years there. And what about recycling? What about the timber that’s a byproduct of the coal industry? We should process it into furniture. These are the kinds of things we should do. Maybe they’re only going to employ five, ten, or fifteen people, but boy oh boy are they going to get a spark going.
Transportation is a big, big issue here. People don’t have enough money to get their own vehicle and they have to depend on others to get around. So the jobs may be here, but how are they going to get to the jobs? I hear that all the time: “You can get me a job, but I don’t have anyone to take me.” The work ethic is here, and they are proud people.
Housing is an issue here too. People who live in low-income housing get a rent increase when they get a job. That leads them to question why they should even get a job.
It all comes back to the mindset. We’ve got people here who are fourth-generation welfare recipients. I’ve heard the stories too, where these kids say they’re going to do the same as their dad and grandpa did. When they get through school, they’re signing up for welfare. Why go to school at all? If the only inducement is to get that check, why even bother? There used to be an inducement to work. If you didn’t work, you didn’t get anything to eat! We don’t have that situation now. If I don’t have a job, I go down and sign up. After I’m on the check for a while, why should I want to get a job? Especially when most of the jobs are low pay and don’t have nearly the benefits these people are getting for staying home and watching TV.
Vice: Skeeze, you were here the day LBJ came. Do you remember it?
Skeeze Ward [awesome old guy who’s lived here forever]:
I didn’t even know he was coming until the day before. The sheriff was out there with a bunch of Secret Service men. But I suppose everything went well that day.
I think we’ve come a long way since then. We’ve made a lot of progress. Everybody that really wants a job can get out there and get one. It may not be $10 an hour, but you can go out and put yourself to it.
But I still think the main problem is that our school system is going down. We have less students. We have to do something to keep the better students here. We’ve got to have some kind of a system.
Vice: Well, that’s that then. Thanks guys.
INTERVIEW MODERATED BY JESSE PEARSON