In former coal country, working poor show open contempt for neighbors who seek handouts

Washington Post

Five days earlier, his mother had spent the last of her disability check on bologna, cheese, bread and Pepsi. Two days earlier, he had gone outside and looked at the train tracks that wind between the coal mines and said, "I don't know how I'm going to get out of this." One day earlier, the family dog had collapsed from an unnamed illness, and, without money for a veterinarian, he had watched her die on the porch. And now it was Monday morning, and Tyler McGlothlin, 19, had a plan.

"About time to go," said his mother, Sheila McGlothlin, 57, stamping out a cigarette.

"I'm ready," Tyler said, walking across a small, decaying house wedged against a mountain and strewn with dirty dishes, soda cans and ashtrays. They went outside, stepping past bottles of vodka his father had discarded before disappearing into another jail cell, and climbed a dirt path toward a housemate's car.

He knew his plan was not a good one. But what choice did he have? He had looked inside the refrigerator that morning, and the math didn't add up. Five people were living in the house, none of whom worked. It would be 17 days before his mother received another disability check and more food stamps. And the refrigerator contained only seven eggs, two pieces of bologna, 24 slices of Kraft American cheese, some sliced ham and one pork chop.

It had to be done.

Tyler would hold a sign on the side of the road and beg for money. He would go to a town 30 miles down the road and stand at one of the region's busiest intersections, where he prayed no one would recognize him, to plead for help from people whose lives seemed so far removed from his own.

To Tyler, the collapse of the coal industry had left two kinds of people in these mountains. There are those who work. And there are those who don't: the unemployed, the disabled, the addicted, and the people who, like his family, belonged to all three groups. Those who work rarely mix with those who don't, except in brief encounters at the grocery store, at the schools or, for Tyler, along the side of the road, where he knew he was likely to encounter acts of generosity as well as outbursts of resentment.

As he walked toward the car and got inside, he had so many hopes in his head. He hoped he would get enough money to feed his family. He hoped the cops wouldn't arrest him. But most of all, he hoped he wouldn't run into a man named David Hess.

It was Hess who had surfaced the subterranean tensions between those who work and those who don't in this depopulating and remote stretch of Virginia. In a moment that continues to resonate here, in the counties of Tazewell, where 1 in 6 working-age residents collect federal disability benefits, and Buchanan, where more than 1 in 4 do, Hess had confronted the McGlothlins late last year for panhandling, then issued a mocking social media post that soon had everyone talking and taking sides.

Were the McGlothlins pitiable or contemptible? Was Hess cruel or simply unafraid to say what others thought?

The morning of the first confrontation, in November, Hess, a man with a crew cut and hands scarred from years of work, slept until noon. His moving company had done a big job the day before, and when he awoke, he noticed he was nearly out of dog food, so he left his house, a brick ranch atop a steep hill. After collecting the dog food from a grocery store, he saw Tyler's father, Dale McGlothlin, a former coal miner living on disability, holding a sign along the side of the road. "Need donations to help to feed my family," it said.

Hess pulled over. He offered him food, then told him he could do him one better: Would he like a job? McGlothlin, whose arms had been damaged in the coal mines and who hadn't worked in more than a decade, declined the offer, and Hess drove off, outraged.

Living at the center of an opioid crisis, and in the aftermath of a decades-long surge in the nation's disability rolls, Hess had long perceived a resistance to work. He had seen it when he couldn't find anyone to hire who could pass a drug test and had a driver's license. Or when someone complained they couldn't find work, and he knew fast-food restaurants were hiring. Or when he saw someone claiming a disability despite having what he thought was a mild condition. He would come away thinking he worked 60 hours a week — despite a thyroid condition, despite two bankruptcies, despite the depressed local economy — not because he felt like it but because that was who he was. And now here was another person who didn't want to work — he wanted a handout, a concept that so angered Hess that his Facebook profile picture was an outstretched palm with a large red strike across it.

He drove home. He emerged a while later with his own sign and returned to the intersection. There, Hess stood beside McGlothlin, who he said had told him he could make more money panhandling than working, and raised the sheet of cardboard.

"I offered him a job," the sign said. "And he refused."

He posted a picture of it on Facebook. "Many of you know I am very pro work," he wrote, recounting what he had done. "I made up my own sign and joined him. PLEASE SHARE."

Dozens did. Then hundreds. Then, to Hess's surprise, the incident quickly spread to thousands of Facebook pages across the region, exposing frictions that have become common in scores of communities reshaped by the historic rise in the number of participants in federal disability programs.

A Washington Post analysis of government statistics found 102 counties, where, at minimum, about one in six working-age residents receive either Supplemental Security Income, a program for the disabled poor, or Social Security Disability Insurance for disabled workers. These are places — primarily white, rural and working-class — where once-dominant industries have collapsed or modernized and the number of people who are jobless or receiving public-assistance benefits has soared.

"There is a critical divide in the minds of low-income whites, between people who work, even if they struggle, and what has historically been called 'white trash,' " said Lisa Pruitt, a professor at the University of California at Davis who researches rural poverty and grew up in Newton County, Ark., which has one of the nation's highest disability rates. "The worst thing you can do in rural America among low-income whites is not work." There's a mentality, she said, that "only lazy white trash" accept what's derided as "handouts."

"Were you morally upstanding or were you not?" was a question Jennifer Sherman, the author of "Those Who Work, Those Who Don't: Poverty, Morality, and Family in Rural America," came to associate with the idea of work and public benefits while living in a remote California community where the timber industry had capsized. "Could you make some claim to work and having a work ethic or could you not? It was your claim to moral capital and your identity."

Nearly two-thirds of rural Americans say it's more common for irresponsible people to receive government help they don't deserve than for needy people to go without assistance, compared with 48 percent of city residents, according to a recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll. Rural Americans are also more apt to say poverty is the result of laziness.

And as Hess's post continued to spread throughout the region, some commenters were beginning to conclude that this, too, was what ailed the panhandler.

"He is a lazy bum," one woman wrote. "Im sorry if he can stand there outside and hold a sign he could work in some capacity... I have cancer and I'm ill but I work yet."

"Why don't his wife get off her butt and get a job?" another woman said.

"I'M JUST TIRED OF BEING RIPPED OFF BY PEOPLE!" another person said.

Meanwhile, the panhandler's son, Tyler, began sending messages to Hess, and the conversation quickly became vitriolic.

"He is a 58 year old man that is disabled," Tyler wrote. "He worked 30 years in the coal mines which is a whole lot (harder than) what your lazy a-- is doing."

"I work," Hess told Tyler. "You bums should try it too." He added in another message: "I am not a dead beat I do not get any disability."

More confrontations followed. Hess later found Tyler's father begging on the same road, this time closer to his house, and yelled at him to stay away. Another time, Hess called the cops on Tyler and a friend of his. "I grew up in one of the roughest households ever," Hess said. "If I can come out of what I came out of, why can't everyone else? . . . I would work anywhere. I would shovel s--- or flip burgers. . . . Hard work is what pulled me out of poverty."

And then came Monday morning, and Hess, following another night of work, was again resting at home, unaware that the McGlothlins were, at that moment, taking a serpentine road through the mountains, about to arrive at the intersection down below.

Tyler sat in the back seat beside his mother. As the car, driven by a housemate, banked along a curve, he put his arm around her and lit a cigarette.

"I'm trying to stay away from jail," he said.

"I reckon you are," said Sheila, who planned to visit a doctor while he begged. "You better not. You're all I got left."

"You're all I got left," he answered.

He could hardly remember a period in his life when it seemed he had more. He never knew the good times his parents would sometimes recall, when the coal mines were open, and his father was getting work all over Buchanan County. He knew only what happened after. The mining accident in 2001 that nearly killed his father, then the anxiety and depression that led to disability benefits. His father's addiction to prescription pills, taken to dull the pain from the mines, and, later, the drug charges and incarceration in 2005. Tyler asking Sheila, also on disability because of depression and anxiety, also addicted to pain pills, to quit drugs. And her saying she would, but only if he'd promise to finish college, find a job somewhere else and take her away from here.

The car went past the McDonald's where Tyler had worked until he was fired for missing a shift during a snowstorm. Next it passed the Food City, where, the year before, Tyler's father had seen a man holding a sign and begging for money, which gave him the idea to do the same.

Tyler used to feel certain that he would keep his promise to Sheila. He had avoided the traps that had ensnared so many others around him. He hadn't gotten a girl pregnant. He hadn't used drugs, like his brother, now incarcerated, as well. He had graduated high school, something neither of his parents had done, then married his girlfriend, Morgan, who was 17.

And after securing financial aid and buying a car with money saved from work, he started welding classes at a community college nearly an hour's drive away. In the mornings, he would take his father to a corner to beg, head off to class, and in the afternoons, they'd return home together. But then came the confrontations with Hess, his father's second incarceration in March for selling hydrocodone and clonazepam, and a car crash that took away his driver's license and totaled his car. Without transportation, he decided to drop out of school and stay home with his mother, wife and other housemates.

Sheila rested a hand on Tyler's right knee, ashed a cigarette into a soda can and looked out the window. She had wanted something more for him, something other than what she felt most days: shame. She knew how she must look, in her pajamas and mismatched socks, to people who work. She knew what they must say about her disability: It's only anxiety, only depression. Why couldn't she work? Why did she buy soda and cigarettes when they needed food? How could she afford the Internet and cable TV bills on a $500 monthly disability check? She would sometimes consider how she would answer. She would say that cigarettes and soda make hard days a little easier. That television is just about her only connection to a world that hasn't seemed to want her anymore. But it's simpler to say nothing at all, so she rarely leaves the house now.

"Once you get a name, you always got a name," she had said the day before to a relative who also draws disability. "You can never disappear."

"The only way something dies on you around here is if the people dies out," the relative had said. "I worked in the coal mines, and my nephews won't even give me the damn time of day. Act like I'm going to steal something off them all the time because I ain't got much."

"Yeah," Sheila had said, nodding. "Yeah."

"That's the shame," he said. "Coal miners is what made this United States what it is."

Sheila gave Tyler a long look. He was studying the paint stains on his jeans and boots. They were left over from some community service he had done a few days before as punishment for stealing two items worth less than $200 at a Walmart, one of which was some ear buds, and returning one for money.

"I was supposed to go work off my fines today," he said.

"You know I'd rather have you do that than do what you're doing now," she said.

"If I was making money doing it, I wouldn't care," he said. "But you go work for nothing."

There was a silence.

"So which hill are you going to?" Sheila asked.

"The top of the hill," he said of the location outside Hess's house.

"You'll get run off. I wish you'd go on out there," she said of another location.

"It ain't got no money out there," he said.

"Maybe you can," she pleaded. "Maybe you can go out there."

They were then quiet as the car approached the Clinch Valley Medical Center, the largest hospital in the region. He looked over at Sheila, who had another cigarette going as the car pulled into a parking spot. "You can't smoke this, Mama," he said, tugging it away. "You'll get a ticket."

She dropped the butt into a soda can, slowly got out of the car and started for the entrance. She turned back.

"I love you," she told him.

"I love you, too," he said, giving her a quick hug.

"I'll call you as soon as I get out."

"All right," he said. "I'll go hold a sign."

He couldn't bring himself to call it what it was. It was never begging. When his father went to jail, and he told Tyler what to do if he became desperate enough, and the family didn't have enough to eat, he didn't tell him to beg or bum. Bums knock on car windows and accost people in the streets, and the family didn't do that. He told his son to hold a sign, so that's what Tyler called it.

And now, standing in a parking lot beneath Hess's house, he looked down at 11 signs in the trunk of the car, most of which his father had made, trying to decide which would be best. "Need help to feed my family," said one that was too big and floppy for such a windy day. "Need Donations to help with my wife's surgery," said another of an operation that had recently removed four inches of Sheila's intestines. "God bless you!" said another. Tyler lifted one more that said, "Layed off need donations to feed my family." He knew it wasn't exactly truthful. Had he been laid off from McDonald's, or fired? But he also wanted people to know he would work — wanted to work, even — so he chose that one, hopeful it would bring donations and maybe a job offer.

He got back in the car, parked outside a store selling auto parts, gripping the sign. He glanced up at Hess' house, wondering whether anyone was home.

"Them are his two Jaguars," he said. "That brick house is his."

"Now, look," said housemate Nick Owens, 27, behind the wheel. "If he's on that hill right there. If he comes down . . . "

"If he comes down, I'll just leave. I don't want him to get in my head or anything."

"Right," Owens said.

"If you see his vehicle come up or anything, just holler at me, if you can. Honk your horn or something," Tyler said and got out of the car. Sidestepping traffic, he reached the center of the intersection, where cars were waiting at a traffic light. He held the sign out before him, and, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone, kept his head down. He didn't see one driver staring at him. He didn't see another talk to his passenger, who looked at Tyler and quickly turned away. He glanced up only when a man stopped and gave him four singles. And again when a blond woman in a blue Ford Focus slowed in front of him. She rolled down her window. He stepped toward her car. She stuck out her head to say something.

"Why don't you go get a job!" she said. "Go cut some grass!"

Then she was gone, and he was alone, thinking she was wrong — he had tried to find jobs, after all — but also thinking she was right. Why couldn't he get a job? Was he to blame? Maybe people were right when they told him tattoos would turn off employers. He also could have walked through the snow that day McDonald's had fired him — it was less than a mile from his house — but he hadn't done that, either. And when his father told him to hold a sign, he could have refused, but he hadn't.

A man in a truck rolled down his window. He handed Tyler a roll of dimes worth $5.

"It's all I got right now," the man said.

"I appreciate it," Tyler said. "God bless you."

Some days he could make $100 in three hours, and other days he would make less than the gas money it took to get here. It all depended on how long he was able to stand at the intersection before he was chased off by Hess or asked to leave by a county deputy, one of whom had just stopped on the other side of the intersection and was motioning at Tyler to approach him.

"We get so many complaints," said the deputy, Brian Triplett. "Just don't stand on the state property."

"I'm just trying to make," Tyler began, then started again. "I applied for jobs, dude, and don't hear nothing back. My mom only gets $500 in Social Security disability."

And it was his mother he thought of after the deputy had left, and he was walking back toward the car, which took him to a grocery store, which had a phone near the managers' desk that made free calls.

Standing at the phone, he punched in Sheila's number.

"Hi," he said into it.

He told her he had made less than $10.

"I stood up there for 15 minutes, and I got ran off."

He would have enough to buy only bologna, bread and cheese.

"David Hess, I didn't even see him anywhere."

All around him — in the checkout line, in the store's office, in the aisles helping customers — were those who worked.

"I don't know what to do."

And here he was, someone who didn't.

"What should I do?"

Scott Clement and Jennifer Jenkins contributed.

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
45°