Af­ter the check is gone

Some re­ceiv­ing ben­e­fits are forced to work in the un­der­ground econ­omy to sur­vive

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

For the peo­ple of the hollow, op­por­tu­nity be­gins where the road ends, and that was where they now went, driv­ing onto a dirt path that vanished into for­est. It was here that they came at the end of the month, when the dis­abil­ity checks were long gone, and the next were still days away, and the only op­tion left was also one of the worst.

The goal was sim­ple. Get to the top of the moun­tain. Col­lect as many wild roots as pos­si­ble to sell to a lo­cal buyer. Avoid the cop­per­heads and rat­tlesnakes. De­scend be­fore the rains came again and flooded their way out.

“My doc­tor gets on me all the time get­ting out here and do­ing stuff like this,” said Donna Jean Dempsey, 51, who had quin­tu­ple by­pass surgery in 2011, as she gripped the pas­sen­ger-side han­dle inside the truck. But what al­ter­na­tive was there? Her $735 dis­abil­ity check was the only steady money she and her brother Bobby Dempsey, who was driv­ing, had com­ing in, and it was never enough. She didn’t have run­ning wa­ter. She didn’t have fur­ni­ture. For seven days

in a row, she had worn the same gray flan­nel shirt and ripped jeans, muddy from the moun­tains.

“You can’t just sit still,” she told Bobby, 52.

“You got to keep go­ing,” he replied.

And where they were go­ing was deep into the un­der­ground Amer­i­can econ­omy, where re­searchers know some peo­ple re­ceiv­ing dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits are forced to work il­le­gally af­ter the checks are spent — be­cause they can’t hold a reg­u­lar job, be­cause no one will hire them, be­cause dis­abil­ity pay­ments on av­er­age amount to less than min­i­mum wage, some­times much less, and be­cause it’s hard to live on so lit­tle.

The un­der­ground econ­omy has long been a part of ru­ral Amer­ica, but it has be­come vi­tal in coun­ties such as this one, de­prived of the once-dom­i­nant coal in­dus­try and re­de­fined by a decades-long swell in the na­tion’s dis­abil­ity rolls that has left more than 1 in 5 workingage res­i­dents in Logan County on So­cial Se­cu­rity Dis­abil­ity In­sur­ance, which serves dis­abled work­ers, or Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come for the dis­abled poor.

Some who en­ter this realm as­sume one risk — work­ing il­le­gally — to avoid oth­ers. Ev­ery re­ported dol­lar be­yond a small amount can re­sult in a re­duced dis­abil­ity check or, worse, no check at all. The gov­ern­ment awards ben­e­fits with the un­der­stand­ing that re­cip­i­ents can work only very lit­tle, or not at all, and that re­port­ing too much in earn­ings can lead to be­ing cut off.

“There is this theme of peo­ple be­ing crooks, but it’s gen­uinely peo­ple try­ing to find a way to patch to­gether a liv­ing when they have very lit­tle in­come,” said Mil Dun­can, one of the na­tion’s lead­ing ru­ral so­ci­ol­o­gists. “It’s not a moral is­sue. It’s a get­ting-by is­sue.”

In West Vir­ginia, get­ting by means digging roots in the moun­tains. Brent Bai­ley, a for­mer as­sis­tant re­search pro­fes­sor at West Vir­ginia Univer­sity who has stud­ied the root trade, calls it a “so­cial safety net” that peo­ple re­lied on when “Plan A fell apart.” “Most of this is Plan B,” he said, “af­ter you’ve lost your job or your dis­abil­ity check has dried up.”

For Donna Jean, who watched Bobby steer his truck above the for­est canopy and through lowhang­ing mist, it was time again for Plan B.

“We’ll park right here and see what we can find,” Bobby said, pulling over be­side a fallen tree and killing the engine.

Donna Jean stepped out and looked up. Dark clouds were mov­ing in from a nearby moun­tain. She lit a home-rolled cig­a­rette and, get­ting to work with a mat­tock, tried to ig­nore the weather. She had lately been telling her­self that she had to stop tak­ing these risks. They were more than an hour from the near­est hos­pi­tal, and what if she had an­other heart at­tack? What if Bobby, al­ler­gic to bees, ac­ci­den­tally dug into a buried nest? And if a snake bit one of them — the month be­fore, Bobby had killed a cop­per­head as it pre­pared to strike — could they get to help in time?

She brought down the mat­tock and came up with a palm-size root the dirty white of ivory.

“Find any­thing?” called Bobby, a tall, an­gu­lar man with hard­ened fea­tures, some dis­tance up the path.

“Solomon’s seal root,” she yelled, lean­ing into a hill­side be­side a scat­ter­ing of sur­face coal. She dug out more, along with some blood­root and “I have no idea what these are, but I’ll take them.” She took them all, hop­ing that a small pile of roots would turn into a big pile and that a big pile would turn into enough money to buy milk, bread and laun­dry de­ter­gent, only stop­ping when a siren sounded. “Flash flood­ing,” she said. She glanced down at the ravine, then up at the clouds. They were darker than be­fore. She wanted off this moun­tain. But her next dis­abil­ity check was three days away, and she didn’t have enough roots, not nearly enough, so down the mat­tock went again. F ive miles be­low, in the hollow of Mal­lory, is a thin road lined with junk cars and mo­bile homes, sev­eral of which be­long to Dempsey family mem­bers, who have lived here longer than nearly any­one, through ev­ery­thing that has hap­pened. Seven of the 13 chil­dren died. The family house burned down. And Donna Jean, the eighth child, un­der­went one mis­for­tune af­ter an­other: rape sur­vivor at 12, mother and il­lit­er­ate dropout at 13, and, af­ter years in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion, dis­abil­ity ben­e­fi­ciary at 22, the ex­act rea­son for which she can’t re­call but sum­ma­rizes as, “I’m not that smart, buddy. Kids made fun of me.”

Home even­tu­ally be­came a shed the size of a one-car garage that her ren­tal com­pany de­scribes as a “lofted play­house,” where she has placed two mat­tresses, a hot plate for cook­ing and an un­con­nected toi­let. If she ever got enough money, she’d like to hook it up to a sewer line so she could stop us­ing Bobby’s bath­room, in the trailer across the road, although she doubts that will hap­pen any­time soon. Ev­ery month, half of her Sup­ple­men­tal Se­cu­rity In­come pay­ment im­me­di­ately dis­ap­pears: $304.17 to Lokey Rentals & Sales for her house, $50 to Ap­palachian Power, $20 to the Dol­lar Store for min­utes on a phone with a cracked screen she rarely uses. And the other half soon fol­lows, on gaso­line, on what­ever her $190 worth of food stamps doesn’t cover, on help­ing Bobby when he needs it.

There was no help­ing any­one at the mo­ment, two days be­fore the first of the month, as Donna Jean, Bobby and his wife, Linda, watched peo­ple roar up and down the hollow on four-wheel­ers and smoked ev­ery home-rolled cig­a­rette to the fil­ter.

“I ain’t got noth­ing,” Donna Jean told them.

“We’re in the same boat,” Bobby said.

“We’re in a worser boat,” Linda cor­rected him. “We don’t have noth­ing com­ing in.”

“Other than what we go out and earn in the moun­tain,” Donna Jean said, with­out ap­par­ent bit­ter­ness, be­cause, for her, that was how it had al­ways been. Af­ter so­cial ser­vices dis­cov­ered her ex­treme poverty, she said, and took away her three chil­dren, whom she now rarely sees, she went to work in the un­der­ground econ­omy. She had al­ways been strong — “like a man,” one friend said — and cut­ting grass or digging ditches or root hunt­ing, which she’d learned as a child, be­came as much about dis­tract­ing her­self from all that she had lost as sub­si­diz­ing her dis­abil­ity check. There were morn­ings she would get to think­ing about the chil­dren she didn’t know, or the hus­band who had died and whose ring she still wore, and con­clude that the only way to feel bet­ter was to do some­thing use­ful.

Some months, that use­ful­ness has brought in less than $50, oth­ers as much as $200. But she never felt bad about con­ceal­ing what she earned while on dis­abil­ity. She be­lieved she had made it hon­estly — never steal­ing, like some, never sell­ing drugs, like oth­ers, but by turn­ing noth­ing into some­thing, which was how she viewed the con­tents of her knap­sack spilling onto the ground be­fore Bobby and Linda. Out came 12 white roots. And eight red roots. And a bundle that smelled like root beer. Bobby leaned in for a look. “Ain’t much,” he said. He picked at his fin­ger­nails, dirty from the day be­fore.

This wasn’t sup­posed to be his life, he had been think­ing lately. He wasn’t sup­posed to be the one ask­ing peo­ple for help, but help is what he needed these days, since the coal in­dus­try had cap­sized and his hours work­ing se­cu­rity out­side a mine had shrunk to noth­ing. Then Linda’s dis­abil­ity check, for de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, was cut off in 2015 when they tem­po­rar­ily moved and the gov­ern­ment counted the trailer they left be­hind as a sell­able as­set. They tried to get the check back, each ac­tion more desperate than the last. They told the gov­ern­ment that the trailer was all they had. They took her name off the deed. They di­vorced. But noth­ing re­stored the lost in­come, so in early June, still un­able to find a job and hav­ing re­turned to the hollow, Bobby went into the moun­tains with Donna Jean.

“It breaks my heart,” Linda said, look­ing at the roots. “It breaks my heart to see you have to go out and work that hard just to make a lit­tle bit of money.”

“You got to try to do what you got to do,” Bobby said.

Donna Jean turned the knap­sack up­side down to make sure ev­ery one was ac­counted for.

“That’s all I got. That’s it right there,” she said. “Ain’t go­ing to make that much out of it.”

“There is this theme of peo­ple be­ing crooks, but it’s gen­uinely peo­ple try­ing to find a way to patch to­gether a liv­ing when they have very lit­tle in­come. It’s not a moral is­sue. It’s a get­ting-by is­sue.” Mil Dun­can, one of the na­tion’s lead­ing ru­ral so­ci­ol­o­gists

“We might,” Bobby said, re­mem­ber­ing the ad­di­tional roots he had at his trailer. “Be­tween what I got there and the lit­tle bit here.”

“Well,” she said af­ter a mo­ment. “Take it to Tommy’s.”

She didn’t need to use his last name. Ev­ery­one in the hollow knew Tommy Vance. ey, buddy,” said the first cus­tomer of the day, the day be­fore the dis­abil­ity checks were due to ar­rive.

“You made it back,” said Tommy Vance, 52.

It was 10 min­utes af­ter open­ing for Vance Re­cy­cling & Root Co., one of the largest root pur­chasers in West Vir­ginia, a sweep­ing ex­panse along Huff Creek strewn with metal com­pactors, Bob­cats and gi­ant fur­naces to dry out herbs and roots. Vance wasn’t sur­prised to see Frank Dou­glas Brown. He had known Brown all his life, back when Brown was “a monster,” stand­ing 6-foot-4, not the man he saw now, stooped be­side 12 bags of cans, bald from chemo­ther­apy, spine twisted by sco­l­io­sis.

“Beau­ti­ful day, ain’t it?” said Brown, 54, who re­ceives $733 a month in dis­abil­ity.

“Yeah,” Vance said, watch­ing as the cans went from Brown’s truck to a con­veyor belt to a com­pres­sor that crushes ev­ery 25,600 cans into one 800-pound cube, fi­nally turn­ing into $152.19 in cash.

“Thanks, man,” Brown said, barely count­ing the money, and off he went in his red pickup.

Vance walked back into his store of­fice, pass­ing two signs that laid out his rules for do­ing busi­ness.

“We are NOT al­lowed to buy the fol­low­ing items: street light poles or fix­tures, road or bridge guard rails . . . traf­fic light sig­nals . . . ceme­tery mark­ers or vases . . . fire hy­drant.”

“We Re­serve the right to *REFUSE* ser­vice to any­one!”

The signs were im­por­tant, es­pe­cially on days like to­day, when peo­ple all over Mingo, Wy­oming, Lin­coln and Logan coun­ties were out of money and desperate for some­thing to stretch them to the first of the month, when the cy­cle, as Vance sees it, be­gins anew. There’s a rush at the Wal­marts, Dol­lar Gen­er­als and Dol­lar Stores. Streets clog with cars. Smoke rises from bar­be­cues along coun­try roads and moun­tain hol­lows. Then comes the lean mid­dle of the month and, fi­nally, the end, when the money is all gone — be­cause who can live on less than min­i­mum wage, or one check may sup­port many, or there was an emer­gency, a kid’s birth­day, Christ­mas. And when that hap­pens, they come to buy­ers such as Vance who dry and re­sell the roots to pro­ces­sors, which pul­ver­ize and re­sell them to nat­u­ral-sup­ple­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers, which re­sell them as herbal prod­ucts to re­tail­ers, which mar­ket them to health-con­scious con­sumers.

Af­ter see­ing his fa­ther start a side busi­ness buy­ing gin­seng, a north­east­ern root par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in China, where it’s used in medicine and tea, Vance opened his own busi­ness two decades ago. It was a time when coal mines were lay­ing off work­ers, an opi­oid epi­demic was spark­ing, and the num­ber of peo­ple re­ceiv­ing dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits was climb­ing. He quickly re­al­ized that their losses drove his gains, and last year, he said, his root pur­chases pumped more than $1 mil­lion into the com­mu­nity, the ma­jor­ity of it com­ing in the sec­ond half of the month.

But even in a busi­ness that prof­its off des­per­a­tion, he never knew how desperate things could be­come, such as last year when a dis­abled man tried to sell Vance his pros­thetic ti­ta­nium leg and, af­ter Vance de­clined, pawned it. Or when an­other man drove to Vance’s, took out a jack, re­moved his car’s tires, sold the rims for scrap metal and left atop four “donut” spare tires, $35 richer. That any­one would do so much for so lit­tle has taught him em­pa­thy, em­pa­thy he some­times sees oth­ers strug­gling with.

“I think it’s a joke,” his cousin, Nathan Vance, who ap­plied for dis­abil­ity ear­lier this year, told him one night af­ter see­ing a man on dis­abil­ity sell Vance a bundle of roots for $12.50. “Peo­ple I know of run the moun­tains all the time. . . . And yet they’re on SSI. Beat­ing the sys­tem.”

“A lot of them is not ca­pa­ble, men­tally, to han­dle it,” Tommy Vance said of hold­ing a reg­u­lar job. “Phys­i­cally, they’re prob­a­bly all right, some of them, but now some of them is not phys­i­cally all right, you know what I’m say­ing?”

“Some of them are not men­tally able,” the cousin said. “My dad was one of them. Nerve prob­lems.”

“I’ve got a lit­tle bit of ner­vous prob­lem,” Vance said.

“I worked un­der­ground un­til I started hav­ing anx­i­ety and I couldn’t stand to go back un­der­ground,” the cousin said.

“Can you imag­ine liv­ing on $700 a month?”

“I can’t,” said the cousin, who stood to re­ceive $2,080 per month if his ap­pli­ca­tion was ap­proved.

“And pay rent, pay util­i­ties. How do you sur­vive? You have to do some­thing else to sur­vive.”

Three days later, the last day of the month, a day Vance would pay out $3,627.04 in cash over 64 pur­chases, a dis­abled man named Ron Brick­les, 48, had that “some­thing else” on his mind when he ar­rived at Vance’s: “I’m in the moun­tains seven days a week, and if I ain’t, bubba, hell, my kids ain’t go­ing to have clothes on their back.” So did a dis­abled man named Johnny Ad­kins, 58: “Any­thing bet­ter than noth­ing.”

And so did Donna Jean.

It had been a bad night. Her brother-in-law’s dog, caged out­side his trailer nearby, had barked the en­tire length of it. Donna Jean got out of bed, an­gry. It was the worst day of the month, and soon she was pulling on the same ripped jeans and soiled flan­nel for the ninth day in a row. She put on her glasses, walked out­side past the shower she kept in case she got run­ning wa­ter and crossed the street to see if Bobby was awake yet.

“Would you like a cup of cof­fee?” he asked.

“I guess we’ll drink that and go ahead and take that stuff over there to Tommy’s,” she said. “Ain’t got much,” he said. “Well,” she sighed ir­ri­ta­bly, “I tried to get you to go [digging] yes­ter­day, and you wouldn’t go.”

“I was beat,” he said. “Yes­ter­day was my rest day.”

“My rest day will be when I’m six foot in the ground.”

She looked at the trailer be­long­ing to Ken­neth, her broth­erin-law, owner of the bark­ing dog, and shook her head.

“Bark, bark, bark,” she said. “Day in and day out.”

“I block that stuff right out of my mind,” he said.

Donna Jean wished she could, as she wished she could block out so many other things. Her par­ents had warned her that life wouldn’t be easy. There would be times she wouldn’t have enough money. But she hadn’t thought that would be her en­tire life, that she would be 51 and liv­ing like this still, some days fan­ta­siz­ing about an amount of money that would barely reg­is­ter with many peo­ple but would mean ev­ery­thing to her. Five hun­dred dol­lars. What would she do if she found some Vir­ginia snake­root — rare, frag­ile and worth $120 per pound — and made $500? What would she buy? There would be a bed. A real one. Not just a mat­tress on the floor. And a cab­i­net, too, some­thing small. But in­stead, she slept where she slept, she had what she had, and that dog wouldn’t stop bark­ing.

“Why don’t you do some­thing about that bark­ing-ass dog down there?” she yelled at Ken­neth when he came by. “I’m go­ing to turn it loose!”

“If I catch you on that prop­erty — ” Ken­neth began.

“Ken­neth, get out of my face!” she said. “Bobby and them might take it from you, but I don’t.”

“Hey!” Bobby, sit­ting on the porch in a camp­ing chair, told Donna Jean. “Keep your mouth shut.”

“I’m tired,” she said. “Ev­ery day, ev­ery day, ev­ery day. I can’t sit on my porch or noth­ing else.”

“This is not go­ing to be here,” Bobby said. “Zip it.”

“I’ve got health prob­lems,” she said. “What’s he got?”

“I’ve got health prob­lems, too,” said Ken­neth, who spent years on dis­abil­ity be­fore the gov­ern­ment cut off his ben­e­fits.

“My wife’s got health prob­lems, too,” Bobby said. “Go home. Go home and zip it.”

But home was more of the same, so she walked the hollow, try­ing to calm down. She went past the house be­long­ing to her brother Don­ald, a for­mer jan­i­tor, who re­ceived dis­abil­ity for kid­ney fail­ure. He lived in a home filled with plush fur­ni­ture, food and paint­ings show­ing Je­sus and would some­times al­low Donna Jean to use his out­door hose for wa­ter. Next came the house of her nephew Don­ald Jr., with its trucks and a boat parked out­side, pur­chased with a min­ing elec­tri­cian’s salary of $100,000. She walked un­til she could see the end of the road, where it turned to dirt, and then, feel­ing bet­ter, re­turned to her shed. She smoked a cig­a­rette, pet­ted her dogs, washed her roots in a tin basin and, af­ter plac­ing them into a small bag, crossed the street back to Bobby’s.

She and Bobby were quiet as they drove the half-mile to Vance’s with their roots, with barely enough gas to get there. They walked in, and Donna Jean looked at the dry-erase board. It showed the value of the moun­tain roots. Solomon’s seal and blood­root were 90 cents per pound. Ninebark, which Bobby had picked, was even less: 70 cents per pound.

The trans­ac­tion took less than five min­utes, and then they were driv­ing home again.

“Kristy said she brought one bag of cans in,” Donna Jean said of a friend who had been de­nied dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits and walked the roads look­ing for any­thing to sell. “She didn’t get but $3.”

Bobby didn’t re­spond, pulling back into the hollow.

“Are we go­ing to go get gas or what?” Donna Jean said. Bobby shook his head. “Or some­thing?” Bobby didn’t re­spond. He pulled up out­side his trailer. Linda was on the porch, drink­ing a soda.

Donna Jean walked to­ward her with the sales re­ceipt in her pocket. It said the Solomon’s seal root she had found five miles above had weighed 0.53 pounds and was worth 48 cents. The blood­root she had wrenched from the ground, hauled to her shed and scrubbed clean of dirt — that came in at 0.35 pounds and made her 32 cents. The re­ceipt said noth­ing at all about the other type of root she had taken in be­cause that had been how much it was worth.

Donna Jean sat down slowly. “I made 80 cents,” she said flatly.

Linda looked at Bobby and saw it in his face. She didn’t ask him how much he had made. And he didn’t tell her it was only $8.32.

He stared across the road and picked at the dirt un­der his fin­ger­nails. “Bobby?” Donna Jean asked. It was noon on the last day of the month. “What are you go­ing to do?” There were 12 more hours to go.

“It’s hard to tell what I’m go­ing to do,” he said, and he went back to his fin­ger­nails.

Twelve hours later: Two McDon­ald’s em­ploy­ees smoked out­side the back en­trance and watched the Logan Bank & Trust park­ing lot, wait­ing for it to fill with peo­ple com­ing to with­draw cash from this month’s dis­abil­ity checks. “Look, that whole lot will be full of cars,” said one man wear­ing a base­ball cap. “Ain’t no joke,” said the other, smok­ing an elec­tronic cig­a­rette. “Like they’re wait­ing for a con­cert or some­thing,” the one in the cap said.

An hour af­ter that: Cars began lin­ing up at the bank’s ATM, first three, then six, then eight, a pro­gres­sion that would keep steady most of the night and well into the morn­ing.

Six hours af­ter that: Donna Jean walked three miles to the phar­macy in Man. A guy in a truck pulled up be­side her and gave her two big trash bags of cans, which she hid be­hind a trac­tor trailer. She next with­drew $400 from her bank ac­count for bills, went to the al­ready-crowded Dol­lar Store and Dol­lar Gen­eral and bought dog food, dog treats, Slim Jims, three six-packs of Mil­wau­kee’s Best, pruners for digging roots and a back­pack to carry it all. She re­trieved her cans, re­lieved that no one had taken them while she shopped, and went home.

An hour af­ter that: She sat out­side her shed, and here came the best mo­ment of the month.

She lit a cig­a­rette, stretched out her legs and opened a beer. The hollow was still quiet, and she felt at peace, now that the bills were paid and the shop­ping was done. She usu­ally spent all of her dis­abil­ity check within days of the first — even that which wasn’t re­served for bills — not be­cause of how much she re­ceived, but be­cause of how lit­tle. What was the point in sav­ing when, even if she could scrape to­gether ev­ery free dol­lar, it would never be enough to change her life? So she bought the beer she had looked for­ward to, en­joyed its re­lease and, as she did now, car­ried it over to Bobby’s.

“There was a guy who gave me two big bags of cans,” she ex­cit­edly told him, tak­ing a seat on the porch. He sighed. “There’s no money in that stuff,” he said. “Big bags,” she said. “No money in it,” he re­peated. “I mean, it’s like us. That roots and stuff. All you get is gas money.”

This time, it was Donna Jean who didn’t say any­thing.

She looked down at her beer and thumbed its lid. She took a sip. The mo­ment could last a while longer, she de­cided. She knew that the first of the month would soon be gone, and with it, the money and beer, and that the only op­tion left would lie at the end of the hollow and the top of the moun­tain.


TOP: Donna Jean Dempsey spends time with her dogs, Coco, left, and Rowdy, at her home in Mal­lory, a rented shed with no run­ning wa­ter. ABOVE: Dempsey rests from digging for roots in the moun­tains. She sells what she gath­ers for cash. Dempsey still chooses to wear a ring that her hus­band, who is de­ceased, gave her. She also has to wear the same shirt and jeans for days.


TOP: Bobby Dempsey, car­ry­ing a pickax and a plas­tic bag, ven­tures up the moun­tain above his home on foot in search of roots to sell. The road was im­pass­able for ve­hi­cles be­cause of fallen trees. ABOVE: Dempsey washes roots in a creek be­hind his trailer.


TOP: Donna Jean Dempsey pauses while try­ing to re­call the his­tory of Mal­lory. ABOVE: Af­ter mid­night on the first of ev­ery month, peo­ple ea­ger for their dis­abil­ity money line up out­side ATMs. BE­LOW: Tommy Vance, owner of Vance Re­cy­cling & Root Co., gives lo­cals cash in ex­change for items they bring for him. He said his root pur­chases pumped more than $1 mil­lion into the com­mu­nity.

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