West Virginia has endured pervasive poverty throughout its history. With a median per capita income at around $35,000, the state ranks second--after Mississippi--as the poorest in the nation. The people of West Virginia feature as stock characters in jokes referencing poor, uneducated "hillbillies." But within the state, the ruggedly self-sufficient culture that endemic poverty has engendered represents strength and independence--a thing of pride for residents. Most importantly--for the purposes of this project--that natural state of being for West Virginia has acted as a kind of buffer against some of the heartbreak and despair the recession has visited upon wealthier parts of the country.
Since my journey is not simply a poverty tour, but intended specifically to document how people are adjusting to dramatically changed economic circumstances, I pointed my rental Prius in the direction of Pocohantas County. Sliding from 5.6% unemployment in late 2007, to 16.9% today, Pocahantas has arguably taken the hardest hit of any county in West Virginia.
I knew driving north on US 219 would take me through some of the most lush and pristine wilderness that can be found anywhere in the country. What I did not realize was that the route would pass by the birthplace of Pearl Buck. Since I brought The Good Earth in my traveling library, it seemed fated that I stop for a visit.
Marietta Stemple and Betty Morrison, two lifetime residents of the area, tag-teamed my tour of the house, perfectly restored to its original 1847 glory. They described how Buck's Dutch grandfather had chopped down the trees to make the planks and beams of the solid wood and brick structure, where her mother had grown up and Pearl had been born before her parents moved to China. In a wonder of 19th-century carpentry and masonry, Buck's grandfather had even hand-formed and fired the bricks in a kiln he constructed, and built the house mostly without the benefit of nails, laboriously carving notches to fit the mortise and tenon joints together.
After the tour, I sat down with Marietta and Betty on the shaded front porch to visit for a bit. What they told me about the local impact of the recession echoed what I had been hearing from everyone I'd spoken to in West Virginia. I had been getting such complacent reactions when I mentioned the economy, I kept pressing forward in search of a poignant tale of someone who'd been profoundly impacted by recent events. Talking to Marietta and Betty made me realize that the significant story was not to chronicle how things had changed, but to highlight how much they had not. As a resident of Marlinton told me, "When you got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. That's recession in West Virginia."
Marietta and Betty explained things as well as I ever could, so the following is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for clarity and concision.
Marietta: I don't feel like the recession has hit us as hard as other places because we're more independent. Prices can hurt us because of gas, utilities, and groceries, but we know how to live lean. People have cut back on what they can cut back on--not going as far on vacation and such.
Pearl Buck once said: "Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness." In the state of her birth, the small joys of simple living add up to something infinitely more meaningful and lasting than any 'big happiness' I could imagine.
Valuable recession lessons can be gleaned from the West Virginia experience: Never buy what you don't need.
And learn how to can.
Betty: Yes, you can maybe see a change in the gas prices and in people traveling. But I've always had to save money, so nothing really changed for me.
Marietta: I never really had a big payday, never had a big amount of money, so I never had a lot to lose. I guess the rising prices have us going back to live more like grandma did. I imagine in other places people don't know how to feed themselves by gardening and canning. But I can remember my parents, my grandparents keeping us fed from the land.
Betty: I've always raised my own garden and canned. It's something I was raised up with, that my mother was raised up with, that my grandmother was raised up with. I buy basics like meat and cheese at the grocery store, but I grow the rest. In my garden there's tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, peppers, carrots, green beans, potatoes, lettuce, onions, corn and some others--staples, mostly. What we don't eat fresh gets canned and put in the basement for winter.
Marietta: We don't have foreclosure here because most people own their homes and have always owned their homes. Most people have jobs, and if they lose one, it probably didn't pay much anyway. We don't have much bankruptcy because most people know their limits. We don't have the expenses of people in the cities. I always sewed and made all my kids' clothes--I have five. I always cut their hair myself. We never bought what we didn't need. That's just how we live.