In Ky. hollows, many families are trapped in despair

November 11, 1990|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CARTER COUNTY, Ky. -- The battered old trailer that is Shirley Stallard's home sits off a country road near Soldier Creek, a brown rivulet of water that washes both her family and their clothes.

There is no electricity in the trailer. There is no running water. Her four children use milk jugs to haul drinking water from neighbors' spigots. They use another neighbor's outhouse just down the gravel road.

Mrs. Stallard uses her small propane stove sparingly so she will not soon have to find $7 to refill the stove's fuel bottle. Their home conspires in their misery: It leaks beads of rain and invites in winter wind.

"This is the best place I've ever lived," Mrs. Stallard said.

Shirley Stallard's life is the face of poverty in the countryside. She is a reminder that the poor are not confined to inner cities, that the worry of survival does not visit only the ghetto, that poverty is not the sole burden of homeless men wandering their aimless urban beats.

One in four poor people in this country lives in a rural area. They are less conspicuous to us: tucked away in hollows of Appalachia, at the end of corn-row paths in the Midwest, in shanties in the Southwest's deserts or hidden in lush New England mountains.

A greater percentage of country residents are poor than urban residents. The rural poor are likely to be in a family with two parents. Often, one parent works. The pay is too meager to lift the family out of poverty. They are likely to have a home, rough as it may be. Three out of four are white. Nearly half are children.

Times have got harder for poor people in rural areas. It has taken most of the last decade for them to recover from the recessions of the early '80s. The Reagan revolution ended much help for them: More than half the states cut food programs that fed the hungry.

"The boom that Reagan promised only happened on Wall Street," said Tom Carew, who runs Frontier Housing, a non-profit group in Morehead, Ky., that builds houses for the poor. "Ten years have gone by, and there's no improvement in their life."

Some stay in poor country areas because their fathers stayed, and because their grandfathers broke the land. Others leave and return. Without skills, they can find no better jobs in a town. At least in the country there are kin to rely on, and room for a garden.

"I know how to survive here," said a mother of three. "You put me in a city, and I don't know how to survive."

Here in Eastern Kentucky, the shadowed folds of the land have trapped the despair of generations. The hollows that twist up the creek beds are a road map to poverty. Follow any to its end, and you find a leaky trailer, a sagging tin house, a shack that wobbles on plywood crutches.

These rough shelters often seem deserted. There are no lights, no bustle, no sounds from children. If one lingers, eyes peer from the dark within, and eventually there comes a guarded greeting.

Such caution is learned. It is born of a cold-eyed look at a history without progress. Twenty-six years after the War on Poverty -- after food stamps, welfare, Head Start, Job Corps and innumerable other programs -- the reality of tar-paper roofs and barefoot children continues. The counties of Eastern Kentucky remain among the most persistently poor in the nation.

"When we came home, after 20 years, nothing had changed," said Glenna Bays, 50, who fled the Appalachian hills for Ohio and returned to care for her parents. "Nothing [here] was any better."

Distrust thrives on the losing side of life. "If you're poor, you're guilty until proven innocent," said John Barry, a former priest who works with Bethany House, a community group in Olive Hill. Strangers may bring trouble, and the poor rarely benefit from the meeting.

That lesson is learned young. Children sense the lack of security and lose even the confidence of youth. They shrink from new faces: A 5-year-old hides behind a door when a visitor arrives; a 16-year-old flees down a mountain path rather than have his picture taken.

Their embarrassment is taught by the ringing taunts of children. Shirley Stallard said schoolmates of her children sometimes ridicule their yard-sale and charity-bin clothes.

"I don't know why kids have to talk like that," she frets at the recollection. "They ought to have more sense. Their parents must not teach them any."

Mrs. Stallard is "32, I think. I might be 33." She is a heavyset woman, with an impassive face worn of expression by sorrow.

She has four children, the oldest in high school. The youngest, "Tootie," 5, scampers barefoot across the sharp gravel of an old rail bed beside their trailer home. "She throws her shoes off any time she can," clucks her mother.

"We're doing better than we used to," Mrs. Stallard said. "The lastplace we were in was wretched. It looked like it was about to fall down. It leaked. It had a pretty good stove in it. But the stove had a big hole in it, so it smoked a bit. The curtains and stuff got pretty black. But it was not bad for $35 a month."

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