Barely getting by in Laurel County, Kentucky

Hard-pressed Appalachian district has one of highest concentrations of food stamp recipients

Vada McCoy, left, at the Come-Unity Cooperative Care Center in London, Kentucky. She depends on the food pantry to get her through each month.
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

LONDON, Ky. — Corn flakes, bread, milk, green beans, a bag of oatmeal, a jar of peanut butter and cans of corn, peaches and pears, pinto beans and chicken noodle and cream of broccoli soup are stacked neatly in boxes.

Volunteers at Come-Unity Cooperative Care, a nonprofit in rural Laurel County, Kentucky, will load the boxes into grocery carts, add fresh produce and meat and wheel them out to those who line up for sustenance at this food pantry.

The staples are a lifeline for Vada McCoy, who shows up the first Wednesday of every month when her pantry shelves inevitably begin to look bare.

“Coming in here helps me a lot because then I got enough food to do me till the 8th,” she said, referring to the date each month when her food stamp benefits (through SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are renewed. “I have to have the food. I’m just too low.”

With the new provisions, McCoy will make peanut butter crackers to eat each night before bed to help control her diabetes. The produce and the meat, so expensive these days at the supermarket, she said, is a godsend. She will give the oatmeal to the family that lives next door in her apartment building.

“They’ve got four itty-bitty, little kids, the oldest one in the first grade,” she said. “Where I live, we take care of each other. And you know when someone don’t have no groceries. When you hear so-and-so don’t have nothing, well, you send something over there.”

In southeastern Kentucky, hardship and need seem to spring forth from the cracks and crevices of the lush green rolling hills; they line the dulcet tones of the people who matter-of-factly recount their struggles to stay afloat. For the last half-century, the conundrum of calcified, generational poverty has stumped policymakers, with the luckless denizens of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains one of its most enduring symbols.  

Unlike urban areas that have also come to typify entrenched poverty, Kentucky’s 5th District is overwhelmingly white (98 percent). And unlike many of the other districts where constituents are heavily reliant on government programs like SNAP, it is represented by conservative politicians who have voted to dial back those programs, alleging fraud and individuals addicted to handouts.

It’s hard to imagine they are talking about McCoy, 62, who is among those who could not survive without federal help yet has seen a dramatic reduction in her benefits, from $200 to $82 a month.

McCoy's life followed the same contours of many living here in rural Appalachia. After she turned 18, she started working — 17 years on the assembly line at Ford Motor Co., six years in a hospital-supply factory, seven more at a plant where she sewed men’s underwear. By the time she was in her late 40s, McCoy’s body had begun to break.

In addition to diabetes, she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and declared legally blind; she suffers from neuropathy, a nerve disorder that causes a burning sensation in her feet. Her last job was as a waitress working for $2 an hour under the table and scraping together tips, but that was more than 10 years ago, when she was able to drive.

With disability payments and SNAP, McCoy can just get by.

SNAP was first cut in November, when emergency stimulus funds that financed it through the recession ran out. It was hit again when a new Farm Bill, which included $8 billion in cuts to the program over the next decade, was signed into law earlier this year.

“There’s nothing I can do about it. What can I do?” McCoy said. “You know you just gotta live with it.”


Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Poverty, 20 percent of Laurel County residents still live below the poverty line, according to census data. While the debate about how to help them ebbs and flows, conditions here and in surrounding areas seem frozen in place. Unemployment was mired at 9 percent through 2013, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, although residents say they see jobs returning to London lately. Thirteen percent of residents have graduated from college. Laurel is relatively fortunate; Owsley County, an hour away, is the poorest in the country, with a 36 percent poverty rate and unemployment at 12 percent.  

Many Republicans — including Kentucky’s — argue that the same welfare state meant to alleviate these problems is partly to blame by creating powerful disincentives to work. Democrats, meanwhile, have tried to defend the programs and expand benefits but have been equally unable to answer the question of what lies behind such persistent and severe economic blight.

In the midst of it all, food stamps have been a target of lawmakers focused on slashing the federal budget. Before the Senate passed the bipartisan Farm Bill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., fretted to farmers in the state that the legislation was becoming a “food stamp bill.”

“We need to move in the direction of having a vibrant, productive, expanding economy. And you don’t do that by making it excessively easy to be nonproductive,” he said, according to The Associated Press.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has gone further in expounding on that philosophy, arguing that large government programs do nothing to create a vibrant economy, as lowering taxes and regulations would. Paul supported a failed amendment earlier this year in the Senate that would have cut the program nearly in half and turned over funding decisions to the state.  

“The War on Poverty failed. It has trapped us in multigenerational dependency,” he said in his response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address earlier this year. “I fully believe most Americans hate the trap of government dependency but can’t break free because Big Government gives them no exit.”

Laurel County’s representative, Hal Rogers, the Republican chair of the House Appropriations Committee, has pumped federal dollars into his district and said he is supportive of SNAP benefits for those who truly need them but railed against “scammers, lottery winners, gamblers and others who may be able to work but simply refuse.” He ultimately voted for the SNAP cuts, although 26 percent of his constituents use the program, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ranking the district among the 10 with the highest proportion of recipients.  

All the political chatter matters little to Gladys Klontz, 35, whose overriding concern is putting food on the table for her three children — ages 15, 7 and 6 — after her family’s SNAP allocation was reduced $32 a month.

“I work my tail off, and I still don’t get nowhere,” said the single mother, who works full time at McDonald’s. “I put in more hours, all the hours they’ll give me, and I still have to rely on the pantries and the food-stamp allotment.”

The cuts mean fewer snacks, less produce and more searching for local food pantries to make up the difference. Those who go to Come-Unity can collect food once a month and must show proof they meet the income guidelines mandated by the state: Klontz’s family is surviving on less than $2,584 a month.

“What I think is great is that for us working people, they do help us like this,” she said. “If I didn’t have the help on the side, I don’t know what I’d do.”

A pantry volunteer helps Howard Day, left, with his month’s allotment.
Pat McDonogh for Al Jazeera America

Howard Day, too, has his coping mechanisms. A garden means he can grow some of his own food and freeze it to get through the winter. Tomato, onion and mayonnaise sandwiches are a staple of his diet. He said he doesn’t like taking handouts but doesn’t know what else to do.

“Money’s just so tight right now,” he said. “This helps a whole lot. The ladies here are real nice. It makes it easier coming, because some people can be hateful.”

Day, 49, served in the military for four years in the 1980s and was working multiple jobs when he returned to Kentucky. A heart attack put him out of commission in 1998. Now the kind of work he could get in Laurel County is no longer the kind of work he is able to do. His income consists of a $916 monthly check from Social Security and $14 a month from SNAP, down from $16.

“At the convenience stores they want you dragging a big mop around, and that rubs my chest the wrong way, and it starts hurting,” he said. “I talked to the doctor about going back to work, and he said no way.”

Kentuckians here bristle at questions about their will to work or their desire to provide for themselves and their families.

“What do they want me to do? Well, I’ll go home with them if they want me to,” Vada McCoy replied when asked about lawmakers who warned of the dangers of government dependency. “Them politicians — they’ll get up there and talk about food stamps and all of these problems up on TV, but they don’t do nothing about it.”

Marjorie Burns, 54, said she started working when she was 14 years old and made a good living as a paralegal for many years. Then she was diagnosed with kidney cancer and her daughter and her granddaughter moved in with her, asking for help. Even a short walk around the food pantry left Burns out of breath.

“You can’t help it if you get cancer or get in a car wreck and get disabled,” she said. “People that have tried and are trying, leave them alone. Help them if you can.”

She asked what members of Congress, the ones with lofty theories on poverty and work, would know about struggle anyway.  

“They don’t really work. What do they do? Sit there in Congress on a plush bench in the air conditioning?” Burns said. “What if they were putting roofs up on a building or something and needed help putting food on their family’s table? How would they feel about it then?”

U.S. districts with the most SNAP recipients

State, district People on SNAP % of district on SNAP Representative Party Non-Hispanic white African-American Hispanic
New York, 16 111,871 49.8% Eliot Engel D 1.40% 32.20% 71.20%
Michigan, 13 62,602 33.19% John Conyers Jr. D 14.80% 75.60% 7.70%
Michigan, 14 58,453 29.28% Gary Peters D 20.90% 73.90% 1.40%
Pennsylvania, 01 66,677 28.23% Robert Brady D 14.70% 55.90% 26.80%
Texas, 15 64,636 27.98% Rubén Hinojosa D 5.50% 1.10% 92.70%
Texas, 28 65,920 26.6% Henry Cuellar D 6.50% 1.30% 92.20%
Kentucky, 05 67,712 26.39% Hal Rogers R 97.80% 0.80% 0.50%
New York, 10 61,031 25.33% Jerrold Nadler D 14.70% 59.20% 26.30%
Arizona, 04 54,937 25.27% Paul Gosar R 19.10% 12.30% 63.40%
New York, 15 60,975 24.57% José Serrano D 5.30% 36.90% 62.60%

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