Dis­abled and dis­dained

A ru­ral town is di­vided be­tween those who work and those who don’t

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY TER­RENCE MCCOY

Five days ear­lier, his mother had spent the last of her dis­abil­ity check on bologna, cheese, bread and Pepsi. Two days ear­lier, he had gone out­side and looked at the train tracks that wind be­tween the coal mines and said, “I don’t know how I’m go­ing to get out of this.” One day ear­lier, the fam­ily dog had col­lapsed from an un­named ill­ness, and, with­out money for a vet­eri­nar­ian, he had watched her die on the porch. And now it was Mon­day morn­ing, and Tyler McGloth­lin, 19, had a plan.

“About time to go,” said his mother, Sheila McGloth­lin, 57, stamp­ing out a cig­a­rette.

“I’m ready,” Tyler said, walk­ing across a small, de­cay­ing house wedged against a moun­tain and strewn with dirty dishes, soda cans and ash­trays. They went out­side, step­ping past bot­tles of vodka his fa­ther had dis­carded be­fore dis­ap­pear­ing into an­other jail cell, and climbed a dirt path to­ward a house­mate’s car. Tyler McGloth­lin hugs his mother, Sheila McGloth­lin, who is stressed about her fi­nances. She re­ceives $500 a month in dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits and is sup­port­ing Tyler and his wife.

He knew his plan was not a good one. But what choice did he have? He had looked in­side the re­frig­er­a­tor that morn­ing, and the math didn’t add up. Five peo­ple were living in the house, none of whom worked. It would be 17 days be­fore his mother re­ceived an­other dis­abil­ity check and more food stamps. And the re­frig­er­a­tor con­tained only seven eggs, two pieces of bologna, 24 slices of Kraft Amer­i­can cheese, some sliced ham and one pork chop. It had to be done. Tyler would hold a sign on the side of the road and beg for money. He would go to a town 30 miles down the road and stand at one of the re­gion’s busiest in­ter­sec­tions, where he prayed no one would rec­og­nize him, to plead for help from peo­ple whose lives seemed so far re­moved from his own.

To Tyler, the col­lapse of the coal in­dus­try had left two kinds of peo­ple in these moun­tains.

There are those who work. And there are those who don’t: the un­em­ployed, the dis­abled, the ad­dicted, and the peo­ple who, like his fam­ily, be­longed to all three groups. Those who work rarely mix with those who don’t, ex­cept in brief en­coun­ters at the gro­cery store, at the schools or, for Tyler, along the side of the road, where he knew he was likely to en­counter acts of gen­eros­ity as well as out­bursts of re­sent­ment.

As he walked to­ward the car and got in­side, he had so many hopes in his head. He hoped he would get enough money to feed his fam­ily. He hoped the cops wouldn’t ar­rest him. But most of all, he hoped he wouldn’t run into a man named David Hess.

It was Hess who had sur­faced the sub­ter­ranean ten­sions be­tween those who work and those who don’t in this de­pop­u­lat­ing and re­mote stretch of Vir­ginia. In a mo­ment that con­tin­ues to res­onate here, in the coun­ties of Tazewell, where one in six work­ing-age res­i­dents col­lect fed­eral dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits, and Buchanan, where more than one in four do, Hess had con­fronted the McGloth­lins late last year for pan­han­dling, then is­sued a mock­ing so­cial me­dia post that soon had ev­ery­one talk­ing and tak­ing sides.

Were the McGloth­lins pitiable or con­temptible? Was Hess cruel or sim­ply un­afraid to say what oth­ers thought?

The morn­ing of the first con­fronta­tion, in Novem­ber, Hess, a man with a crew cut and hands scarred from years of work, slept un­til noon. His mov­ing com­pany had done a big job the day be­fore, and when he awoke, he no­ticed he was nearly out of dog food, so he left his house, a brick ranch atop a steep hill. Af­ter col­lect­ing the dog food from a gro­cery store, he saw Tyler’s fa­ther, Dale McGloth­lin, a for­mer coal miner living on dis­abil­ity, hold­ing a sign along the side of the road. “Need do­na­tions to help to feed my fam­ily,” it said.

Hess pulled over. He of­fered him food, then told him he could do him one bet­ter: Would he like a job? McGloth­lin, whose arms had been dam­aged in the coal mines and who hadn’t worked in more than a decade, de­clined the of­fer, and Hess drove off, out­raged.

Living at the cen­ter of an opi­oid cri­sis, and in the aftermath of a decades-long surge in the na­tion’s dis­abil­ity rolls, Hess had long per­ceived a re­sis­tance to work. He had seen it when he couldn’t find any­one to hire who could pass a drug test and had a driver’s li­cense. Or when some­one com­plained they couldn’t find work, and he knew fast-food restau­rants were hir­ing. Or when he saw some­one claim­ing a dis­abil­ity de­spite hav­ing what he thought was a mild con­di­tion. He would come away think­ing he worked 60 hours a week — de­spite a thy­roid con­di­tion, de­spite two bankrupt­cies, de­spite the de­pressed lo­cal econ­omy — not be­cause he felt like it but be­cause that was who he was. And now here was an­other per­son who didn’t want to work — he wanted a hand­out, a con­cept that so an­gered Hess that his Face­book pro­file pic­ture was an out­stretched palm with a large red strike across it.

He drove home. He emerged a while later with his own sign and re­turned to the in­ter­sec­tion. There, Hess stood be­side McGloth­lin, who he said had told him he could make more money pan­han­dling than work­ing, and raised the sheet of card­board.

“I of­fered him a job,” the sign said. “And he re­fused.”

He posted a pic­ture of it on Face­book. “Many of you know I am very pro work,” he wrote, re­count­ing what he had done. “I made up my own sign and joined him. PLEASE SHARE.”

Dozens did. Then hun­dreds. Then, to Hess’s sur­prise, the in­ci­dent quickly spread to thou­sands of Face­book pages across the re­gion, ex­pos­ing fric­tions that have be­come com­mon in scores of com­mu­ni­ties re­shaped by the his­toric rise in the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants in fed­eral dis­abil­ity pro­grams. A Wash­ing­ton Post At top, Tyler McGloth­lin holds a sign seek­ing do­na­tions in Rich­lands, Va. Above mid­dle, Tyler and his wife, Mor­gan McGloth­lin, play video games most of the day and night. Above, Tyler looks at a Face­book post show­ing his fa­ther, Dale McGloth­lin, beg­ging for money while David Hess holds a sign say­ing, “I of­fered him a job. And he re­fused.” anal­y­sis of gov­ern­ment sta­tis­tics found 102 coun­ties, where, at min­i­mum, about one in six work­ing-age res­i­dents re­ceive ei­ther Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come, a pro­gram for the dis­abled poor, or So­cial Se­cu­rity Dis­abil­ity In­sur­ance for dis­abled work­ers. These are places — pri­mar­ily white, ru­ral and work­ing-class — where once-dom­i­nant in­dus­tries have col­lapsed or mod­ern­ized and the num­ber of peo­ple who are job­less or re­ceiv­ing pub­lic-as­sis­tance ben­e­fits has soared.

“There is a crit­i­cal di­vide in the minds of low-in­come whites, be­tween peo­ple who work, even if they strug­gle, and what has his­tor­i­cally been called ‘white trash,’ ” said Lisa Pruitt, a pro­fes­sor at the University of Cal­i­for­nia at Davis who re­searches ru­ral poverty and grew up in New­ton County, Ark., which has one of the na­tion’s high­est dis­abil­ity rates. “The worst thing you can do in ru­ral Amer­ica among low­in­come whites is not work.” There’s a men­tal­ity, she said, that “only lazy white trash” ac­cept what’s de­rided as “hand­outs.”

“Were you morally up­stand­ing or were you not?” was a ques­tion Jen­nifer Sher­man, the au­thor of “Those Who Work, Those Who Don’t: Poverty, Moral­ity, and Fam­ily in Ru­ral Amer­ica,” came to as­so­ciate with the idea of work and pub­lic ben­e­fits while living in a re­mote Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­nity where the tim­ber in­dus­try had cap­sized. “Could you make some claim to work and hav­ing a work ethic or could you not? It was your claim to moral capital and your iden­tity.”

Nearly two-thirds of ru­ral Amer­i­cans say it’s more com­mon for ir­re­spon­si­ble peo­ple to re­ceive gov­ern­ment help they don’t de­serve than for needy peo­ple to go with­out as­sis­tance, com­pared with 48 per­cent of city res­i­dents, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Wash­ing­ton Post-Kaiser Fam­ily Foun­da­tion poll. Ru­ral Amer­i­cans are also more apt to say poverty is the re­sult of lazi­ness.

And as Hess’s post con­tin­ued to spread through­out the re­gion, some com­menters were be­gin­ning to con­clude that this, too, was what ailed the pan­han­dler.

“He is a lazy bum,” one woman wrote. “Im sorry if he can stand there out­side and hold a sign he could work in some ca­pac­ity.. I have cancer and I’m ill but I work yet.”

“Why don’t his wife get off her butt and get a job?” an­other woman said.

“I’M JUST TIRED OF BE­ING RIPPED OFF BY PEO­PLE!” an­other per­son said.

Mean­while, the pan­han­dler’s son, Tyler, be­gan send­ing mes­sages to Hess, and the con­ver­sa­tion quickly be­came vit­ri­olic.

“He is a 58 year old man that is dis­abled,” Tyler wrote. “He worked 30 years in the coal mines which is a whole lot [harder than] what your lazy a-- is do­ing.”

“I work,” Hess told Tyler. “You bums should try it too.” He added in an­other mes­sage: “I am not a dead beat I do not get any dis­abil­ity.”

More con­fronta­tions fol­lowed. Hess later found Tyler’s fa­ther beg­ging on the same road, this time closer to his house, and yelled at him to stay away. An­other time, Hess called the cops on Tyler and a friend of his. “I grew up in one of the rough­est house­holds ever,” Hess said. “If I can come out of what I came out of, why can’t ev­ery­one else? . . . I would work any­where. I would shovel s--- or flip burg­ers . . . . Hard work is what pulled me out of poverty.”

And then came Mon­day morn­ing, and Hess, fol­low­ing an­other night of work, was again rest­ing at home, un­aware that the McGloth­lins were, at that mo­ment, tak­ing a ser­pen­tine road through the moun­tains, about to ar­rive at the in­ter­sec­tion down be­low.

Tyler sat in the back seat be­side his mother. As the car, driven by a house­mate, banked along a curve, he put his arm around her and lit a cig­a­rette.

“I’m try­ing to stay away from jail,” he said.

“I reckon you are,” said Sheila, who planned to visit a doc­tor while he begged. “You bet­ter not.

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TER­RENCE MCCOY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

LINDA DAVID­SON/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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