America’s Poorest County

Kevin D. Williamson visits Owsley County, Kentucky, which he describes as “not the land of moonshine and hill lore, but that of families of four clutching $40 worth of lotto scratchers and crushing the springs on their beaten-down Camry while getting dinner from a Phillips 66 station.” Among his many depressing findings:

[I]t turns out that the local economy runs on black-market soda the way Baghdad ran on contraband crude during the days of sanctions. It works like this:

Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new E pluribus unum – are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases — reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers — of soda. Those cases of soda then either go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollar, in effect laundering those $500 in monthly benefits into $250 in cash — a considerably worse rate than your typical organized-crime money launderer offers — or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescription painkillers — by “pillbillies,” as they are known at the sympathetic establishments in Florida that do so much business with Kentucky and West Virginia that the relevant interstate bus service is nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.” A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests that the exchange rate between sexual favors and cases of pop — some dealers will accept either — is about 1:1, meaning that the value of a woman in the local prescription-drug economy is about $12.99 at Walmart prices.

Dreher shakes his head:

What do you do with people like that? Many of us — conservatives and liberals both — are outraged at the idea that there is nothing that can realistically be done to ease their estate, to deliver them from this kind of grinding suffering. But what if, for some people, it’s true? What if the reality of the situation defeats idealism? What do you do then? Can you do anything that matters? I’m not asking rhetorically; I mean it.