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