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White poverty in Floyd County, Kentucky

| Monday, February 10, 2020

It is an abiding truth that poverty cuts across racial lines in the United States. Relatedly, a recent editorial decrying “whiteness” in our nation simply misses the mark.

Let me backtrack a bit. Until the summer of 2017, I had always considered poverty only in the abstract. As a child and well into my teenage years, the concrete experience of poverty never impacted my life or the lives of others I knew well. Helping out at a local soup kitchen every once in a while doesn’t count.

That 2017 summer, thanks to the Center for Social Concerns’ one-of-a-kind Summer Service Learning Program, I was afforded the opportunity to leave the upper-middle class bubble in which I had lived my entire life and work as a home repair intern in a small town in Floyd County, Kentucky, neatly tucked within the hills that envelop the eastern quarter of the state. It is no secret that eastern Kentucky is one of the poorest regions in the United States. It is also no secret that the demographic composition of Floyd County and most other counties in the region is upwards of 95% white.

The everyday reality to which these statistics correspond can only be fully understood through personal experience. During my eight weeks living and working in Floyd County and the surrounding region, I encountered dozens of homeowners and their families living in impoverished conditions to various degrees. However, one family in particular remains stamped upon my memory because of the extremely tragic lifestyle they endured every single day in their dilapidated trailer.

The first time I walked up to that trailer one July afternoon alongside my far more experienced project leader, the sky had already been pouring rain for hours on end since the morning. I greeted a soaked family (a mom, dad and their 6-year-old daughter) and hurried into their trailer to examine the ceiling in preparation for the repair work we planned to complete within the next week or two. As I walked inside, my eyes initially cast their glance upon numerous large, rusted buckets scattered across the room. A split second later, I lifted my gaze upwards. I saw a “roof” that was merely 90% ceiling and 10% gray, rainy sky. Water was leaking into their trailer at numerous points without obstruction. Inconceivably, this family had been living their past few years in this trailer with countless wide-open holes in their ceiling. The only way to ensure that the entire trailer wouldn’t get soaked on rainy days (and perhaps eventually collapse) was to position those old buckets underneath the open holes and bail nonstop for as long as it would be necessary. I did not witness a degree of poverty during my eight weeks in Floyd County that even came close to matching this family’s destitute situation, let alone had I seen anything like it throughout the rest of my sheltered life.

What was even more unfortunate about this family’s condition was that their hospitality toward me and their cohesiveness with each other was so energetic and bountiful. They didn’t deserve this life! They acted as though the anxiety of living in something like a sinking rowboat was meaningless against the joy that the presence of new guests in their home inspired in their hearts.

The rain ended later that afternoon, which gave me the opportunity to kick a torn-up soccer ball with the daughter in her family’s weedy yard and talk with her parents as they sat outside watching us play, finally relieved of their bailing duties. Two weeks later, the rain ended permanently inside their house too, after we installed a simple but effective metal roof to cover their porous ceiling. Naturally, they were extremely grateful for this new normal. We apologized for taking a few days longer with the project than we had expected, but the father interjected before our project leader could finish: “A few days? We’ve been living like this for years. The fact that you were able to put a roof over our heads and change our lives forever in just two weeks … this is the greatest gift we’ve ever received.”

Although they did not say so explicitly, these fine folks impulsively understood that both the nature and telos of the human being is, quite simply, to be related in love. At the core of our being, we desire human contact, which relativizes all material poverty and suffering to the degree that we are willing to embrace our God-given potentiality to love and be loved by others, even if all that might entail is an hour of kickball and conversation. This desire makes us all naturally shudder when we witness our fellow man in such deplorable conditions, even those with whom we are totally unacquainted.

Surely, then, the good life does not consist in the material things that characterize the lifestyles of most Notre Dame students when we return home: a decent-sized house with a roof that will probably last for decades, a reliable car in the driveway to travel from coast to coast if we so desire, fashionable clothes stuffed inside a large walk-in closet, a big flatscreen TV with paid subscriptions to all the “necessary” streaming services and all the other junk we rely upon to feed our rather pathetic passions in the cozy cloisters we call home.

Of course, most Notre Dame students, as the recent editorial correctly noted, are white in addition to being quite wealthy on average. Likewise, the family I met in Floyd County is white, though our lives could not have been more different before (and even after) they got their new roof. They were powerless to improve their condition for years before Hand in Hand Ministries accepted their home repair application. Even today, the odds that their daughter gets accepted into Notre Dame or a similarly elite school 10 years from now is incredibly low, although I am sure that their roof helps her concentrate much better on her math homework.

With this in mind, the assertion that “whiteness” holds some kind of hegemonic influence in American society is truly laughable for most people outside the Notre Dame bubble (and inside it, quite frankly, although that is a topic for a different article). Believe it or not, there exists outside zip code 46556 a large swath of poor whites to whom the rhetoric of hegemony is a foreign language. That beautiful family I met three summers ago felt “endangered” not because they had any power to lose, but because their trailer was falling apart. At a time when universities are becoming increasingly detached from the real world, this kind of language is not very helpful, let alone accurate.

Brennan Buhr is a senior Juggerknott from Albany, NY who studies theology, political science (but really, just theory) and history. He loves drinking cold glasses of skim milk and eating salad for dessert when he is not consuming “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51) at the Basilica. He can be reached at [email protected] or @BuhrBrennan on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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