Working Poor in Southwest Virginia Bristol
Update May 2020. The above graphic (click image for larger view) how bad off Southwest Virginia. That is before the Chinese Corona Virus wrecked the national economy.
My community was highly vulnerable to a downturn and it couldn't get much worse than this. It will take years for the nation to recover and our region never will.
While this was written a few years ago there was some recovery finally in 2017-2019. This was after the regional labor force in Tri-Cities Bristol suffered a decline of 20,000 in our labor force from 2010.
Appalachia like much of rural America has become a welfare basket case. Government social programs and economic planning benefits those controlling the money stream in partnership with business.
Not only have the poor lost many of the survival skills they once had to a welfare check they are forced to compete with affluent people moving into their communities - people often hostile to them and their values.
The working poor face three inter-related problems - falling and low wage scales, family breakdown, and inflation. Beset by crony capitalism the region took another severe job hit in 2012 and 2013.
Yet this website warned this was going to happen. The Bristol Herald Courier article The Mountain Empire's shifting labor market The jobs, they are-a-changin' March 10, 2013 featured 22-year-old Brittany Hensley of Bristol Virginia who worked at a local Holiday Inn:
"I've been a restaurant server, delivered pizzas, worked in kitchens, done all types of stuff. But this is the job I've liked the best, for sure. There's something about going into a used room and changing it into a clean, neat one that I really like. And you really meet a lot of interesting people. I could definitely see myself doing this job for awhile."
I'm sure she will go far, perhaps become a manager? I hope she makes it. Her story is far too typical here. The article further noted that hospitality and medical are the real growing sectors of the economy here, but optimism was tempered by the growing loss of government jobs.
The article also noted the optimism of the local medical industry with Obamacare and how everyone now will get insurance and that will cut back on so many uninsured.
But in spring 2014 reality reared its ugly head. Medical and tourism are in a nose dive. Services, retail, and government alike all took big hits. Bristol Motor Speedway's spring race was a disaster - it filled less than 15,000 seats of its over 100,000 seating capacity.
One women interviewed on local TV stated she brought everything with her in her camper from home - thus robbing retail and lodging of income. That's happening more and more as visitors bring what they need with them and don't stay as long.
As for the local hospital industry which is in reality government funded - massive cuts in Medicare has created chaos. One local chain is seeking a partner, Lee County, Virginia closed its hospital, others are cutting back. Many of the poor will instead end up on Virginia Medicaid or TennCare - both don't pay anywhere near what Medicare does which is why so many doctors won't take these patients.
Quoting the Bristol Herald Courier February 7, 2013:
The impact of Medicare cuts over a 10 year period without a safety net could end up costing Sullivan County $326 million dollars, says a Tennessee Hospital Association study released Thursday.
Financial officials with Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance met collectively at Tri-Cities Regional Airport in Blountville to address the media about the proposed recessionary result of the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which commences in 2014.
In fact "recessionary" is just what they got. So how did the press report such a rosy picture in March yet reported a train wreak in February?
But going back to Brittany, if she is single and lives with her parents she can do OK unless she is forced to buy high-priced insurance that's mandatory under Obamacare to support the elderly and sick. Young people are getting soaked on that deal.
Now we come to another problem - low wage employers don't supply insurance and many under Obamacare are cutting workers like Brittany to under 30 hours a week to evade the cost. Food City a local grocery chain did just that to most of its workforce - after getting $6 million in corporate welfare to move their offices around in the same town. (Jobs saved claims local government.)
But what happens if she is a single mother or becomes one? Her low-paying job no matter how much she likes it won't support a child without multiple jobs plus childcare subsidies or a working spouse - most likely three jobs between them. Now we come to the second problem the working poor face in Bristol and Appalachia in general - family breakdown and single parents.
Local Channel 5 WCYB on January 19, 2014 shocked even me that two local educators are claiming 7 out of 10 elementary school children in Bristol Virginia live in poverty.
A book titled "Educating Students in Poverty" was written by Bristol Virginia Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Rex Gearheart and superintendent Dr. Mark Lineburg. They blame the problem on "class difference" and said, "When you look at test scores across the country, you see the tremendous gap that still exists between our students in poverty, and those who are not."
That's the typical liberal-lefty explanation for everything, but I believe it's more complex than that. We have to be careful of "poverty" which is seldom about income alone. Many of those in "poverty" if we counted government benefits as income would be earning more than Brittany does with two jobs. Bristol is a little high on child poverty numbers due to so much public housing in the City. There are 11 according to a police officer I spoke to.
Quoting Marsha Mercer January 20, 2014:
"We know that doing three simple things practically guarantees that someone won't live in poverty: finish high school, get a job, and marry before starting a family. And yet generations of Americans have missed the message."
Irresponsible behavior and tolerance of sloth and sexual promiscuity are big factors in child poverty:
Nearly 70 percent of the city school division's students come from single-parent households and - in many cases - it is the grandmother and not the mother or father who is the caregiver.
In Bristol, Va., there are 1,450 households with women and children but no men present, according to the Census Bureau. In addition, nearly 400 city grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren younger than 18 years old.
That matriarchal structure is prevalent in more than half of generational poverty cases reviewed in a 2012 MTSU study. It also found a greater incidence of multiple sexual relationships among single adults and more chances of violence and death.
Oftentimes, children in these situations don't receive enough academic support at home, have substandard living conditions or, in some cases, shuttle between different family members.
They note the problem is "multi-generational" both public housing and many low-class families are beset with multiple social ills: drug abuse, gangs, unsupervised children wondering the streets, rape, sexual abuse, etc.
Even though Bristol is over 90 percent white the very same problems in low-achieving non-Asian minority communities, black ghettos, and Indian reservations exists here among low-class whites. It's not racism but culture and behavior. That's why I come down so hard on liberals milking the race issue instead of dealing with the source of the problem - often the poor themselves and their culture.
Yes there is a lack of economic opportunity but that can be dealt with and overcome if they simply followed traditional white culture. The welfare state has replaced church and family and rewards stupid behavior.
Looking again at Brittany she is a typical unskilled worker with a typical low-end Bristol job living on the edge. If she was to get into trouble (I'm not saying she would) its easier to slip over into welfare and public housing launching another generation of Appalachian losers.
Fact: far more white people collect welfare than blacks!
There are few real private sector jobs outside low end services such as Wall Mart, fast food, etc. The 4500 or so employed by Virginia Tech earn big money, Wall Mart workers fight thousands of students for housing at inflated prices relative to their income.
The problem is made even worse by the presence of affluent move-in retirees and local environmentalists. (Here in Washington County property taxes have exploded.) The income gap is already terrible, but affluent environmentalists moving into the region want to do what they did with Seattle - impose onerous restrictions on everything to promote their view of "sustainability" at everyone else's expense. This crushes the poor with an exploding cost of living but little economic opportunity.
Retirees move into the area and have outside sources of income - they buy up everything at premium prices (relative to those that live here) and to quote one local realtor "are pushing" the poor out. (Or into public housing.)
What I did was develop an index to compare healthy communities with unhealthy communities by comparing cost of living with median family income.
Based on Kiplinger's Best Cities 2010 survey of 367 MSAs, I developed the MICL index. This compares the median family income versus the cost of living. This is a possible reflection of both an income gap and the low quality of jobs, etc. The higher the index the better the community is for the poor to live in.
The region of Southwest Virginia suffers the highest cost of living relative to the lowest median family incomes as compared to other communities in Virginia and Tennessee. Bristol/Washington County came out last in both states. The second worse from the Kiplinger listing was the Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford area home of huge colleges.
Both share the same problem of mostly low-wage private sector jobs, too many government jobs for a select few, affluent retirees inflating the costof living, and the presence of too many colleges that provide no real opportunity for the average resident and they don't pay a penny in property or other taxes. Colleges are hot beds of environmental activism and extremism.
Also note that neither location lacks a "creative class". Studies show retirement communities are murder on low-income working people. The presence of college students distorts poverty figures and inflates housing costs. Many working people are forced into "affordable" housing they don't want even if it was available.
In fact it costs more to live in Bristol-Washington County than St. Louis, Dallas, Tampa, Atlanta, or Phoenix!
For more on this see Cost of Living Versus Income in Bristol VA/TN.
323,"Kingsport-Bristol-Bristol, TN-VA"; Population 302,997; Cost of Living Index 100; Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class 30.9; Median Household Income $36,017; Salary Growth 3.05%, Employment Growth 0.81% MICL: 360.17 314,"Blacksburg-Christiansburg-Radford, VA"; Population 157,052; Cost of Living Index 97.93; Percentage of Workforce in Creative Class 25.1; Median Household Income $37,827; Salary Growth -3.38%; Employment Growth 1.22%; MICL: 386.27
Note the higher the number the better the value; Cost of Living Index of 100 being the national average.
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