America’s poorest white township: abandoned by coal, swallowed by medications

In the first of a series of dispatches from the USs poorest communities, we visit Beattyville, Kentucky, blighted by a lack of jobs and addiction to painkillers

Karen Jennings patted her heavily made up face, put on a sardonic smile and said she guessed she appeared good after all shed been through.

I was an alcoholic first. I get drunk and fell in the creek and violated my back. Then I get hooked on the painkillers, the 59 -year-old grandmother told.

Over the years, Jennings back mended but her addiction to powerful opioids remained. After the prescriptions dried up, she was drawn to the underground drug trade that defines eastern Kentucky today as coal, petroleum and timber once did.

Jennings spoke with startling frankness about her its participation in a plague gripping the isolated, fading townships dotting these sections of Appalachia. Frontier communities steeped in the myth of self-reliance are now blighted by addiction to opioids hillbilly heroin to those who use them. Its a dependency bound up with economic desperation and financed in part by the same welfare system that is staving off economic breakdown across much of eastern Kentucky. Its a crisis that traverses generations.


One of those communities is Beattyville, recorded by a US census survey as the poorest white township 98% of its 1,700 residents are white in the country. It was also by one measure the Census Bureaus American Community Survey 2008 -2 012 of communities of more than 1,000 people, the latest statistics available at the time of reporting among the four lowest income towns in the country. It is the first stop for a series of dispatches by the Guardian about the lives of those trying to do more than survive in places that seem the most remote from the aspirations and possibilities of the American Dream.

Beattyville sits at the northern tip-off of a belt of the most enduring rural poverty in America. The belt runs from eastern Kentucky through the Mississippi delta to the Texas border with Mexico, taking in two of the other townships one overwhelmingly African American and the other exclusively Latino at the bottom of the low income scale. The township at the very bottom of that census list is an outlier far to the west on an Indian reservation in Arizona.

The communities share common struggles in grappling with blighted histories and uncertain futures. People in Beattyville are not alone in wondering if their various kinds of rural township even has a future. To the young, such places can sometimes feel like traps in an age when social mobility in the US is diminishing and they face greater obstacles to a good education than other Americans.

At the same time, each of the towns is distinguished by problems not common to the rest. In Beattyville it is the drug epidemic, which has not only destroyed lives but has come to redefine a town whose fleeting espouse of prosperity a generation ago is still visible in some of its grander official houses and homes near the heart of the town. Now they seem to accentuate the decline of a main street littered with ghost stores that havent find business in years.

Jennings shook off her craving after 15 years. She struggled to find work but eventually got a job serving in a eatery that pays the $300 a month rent on her trailer home. She collects a small disability allowance from the government and volunteers at a food bank as a kind of atonement. Helping other people is, she told, her way of getting through: I only want to serve God and do what I can for people here.

income map

It was at the local food bank that Jennings spilled out her story.

There are lots of ways of getting medications. The elderly sell their prescriptions to make up fund to buy food. There are doctors and pharmacies that only want to make money out of it, she told. I was the manager of a fast food place. I used to buy from the customers. People could come in for a hamburger and do a drug transaction with me and no one would ever notice.

Even as Jennings associated the toll of drug abuse the component it played in destroying at least some of her five marriages, the overdose that nearly expense her life and the letter she wrote to her doctor imploring for the help that finally wrenched her off the pills she spoke as if one step removed from the experience.

You get hooked and youre not yourself. You go on functioning. You do your job. But I truly dont see how Im alive today, she told.

It was only when Jennings got to the part about her son, Todd, a bank vice-president, that she faltered. I lost my son three years ago from suicide. My lifestyle contributed to his depression. I take responsibility for my part of it, she said.

Alex Dezanett lives in a tent pitched in a horse trailer in Beattyville. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

The cluster of people waiting their turn to collect a cardboard box containing tins of beef stew, macaroni and cheese instant dinners, bread, eggs and cereal passed no direct comment as Jennings recounted her history.

Some of them carried their own sense of defeat at having come to rely on government assistance and private largesse. But afterwards there was a whiff of distrust from others who seemed to see the decades-long decline of their communities as a moral failing.

Im not one for helping people who dont help themselves but sometimes you do the best you can and you still need assist, told 63 -year-old Wilma Barrett who, after a lifetime of hard work farming and digging coal, was unsettled to find herself reliant on welfare payments and the food bank. A lot of its our own fault. The Lord tells work and if you dont work and provide for yourself then theres no reason why anyone else should. I know its easy to give up but the Lord tells us not to give up. Too many people here have given up.

Food bank volunteer Karen Jennings, who described her life as a former addict. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Hidden world

Eastern Kentucky falls within that part of Appalachia that has come to epitomise the white underclass in America ever since president Lyndon Johnson sat down on the porch of a timber cabin in the small town of Inez in 1964 and made it the face of his War on Poverty.

The president arrived virtually unannounced at the home of Tom Fletcher, a 38 -year-old former coalminer who had not held a full-time chore in two years and was struggling to feed eight infants. The visit offered the rest of the US a disturbing glimpse into a largely hidden world where houses routinely lacked energy and indoor plumbing, and children habitually failed to get enough to eat. The 1960 census records that one in five adults in the region could neither read nor write.

Half a century afterward, while poverty levels have fallen dramatically in some other areas of the country in good component thanks to Johnson, the economic gap between the region and much of the rest of America is as broad. And its deprivation is once again largely invisible to most of the country.

Beattyvilles median household income is only $12,361( about APS8, 000) a year, placing it as the third lowest income town in the US, according to that Census Bureau 2008 -1 2 survey.

Nationally, the median household income was $53,915 in 2012. In real terms, the earnings of people in Beattyville is lower than it was in 1980.

The townships poverty rate is 44% above the national average. Half of its families live below the poverty line. That includes three-quarters of those with children, with the attendant repercussions. More than one-third of adolescents drop out of high school or leave without graduate. Simply 5% of residents have college degrees.

Surrounding communities are little better. Beattyville is the capital of Lee County, named after the commander of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia in the civil war, General Robert E Lee.

Five of the 10 poorest districts in the US run in a line through eastern Kentucky and they include Lee County. Life expectancy in the county is among the worst in the US, which is not unconnected to the fact that more than half the population is obese. Men lived an average of only 68.3 years in 2013, a little more than eight years short of the national average. Women lived 76.4 years on average, about five years short of national life expectancy.

An deserted truck in Beattyville. Photograph: David Coyle/ Team Coyle for the Guardian

A few months before he visited eastern Kentucky, Johnson said in his State of the Union address: Our aim is not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.

Over time, the focus of that endeavor shifted to inner-city poverty and many of the programmes Johnson launched came to be seen as aimed at minorities, even though to this day white people make up the largest number of recipients.

But when the president sat on Fletchers porch in Inez, he had in intellect rural poverty of an almost exclusively white region where the coal industry which for a while provided tasks but not the much-promised prosperity was already receding and people struggled for more than a basic income from the land.

Television pictures of Johnsons visit presented Americans with a hardness of living in the midst of some of the greatest beauty the US has to offer. Life in a log cabin buried in the forest from which it was hewed is romantic until you have to collect water by pail in the dead cold of winter.

The War on Poverty did relieve many of the symptoms. Food stamps and housing awards, healthcare for the poor and older people and improved access to a decent education have kept millions from struggling with the deprivations Johnson encountered in Inez. There are few homes in eastern Kentucky without energy and indoor lavatories these days. But the promised remedy for poverty never materialised.

Lyndon B Johnsons Poverty Tours

Three decades after Johnsons visit, Fletcher was still unemployed but receiving disability benefits. His first wife had died of cancer. His second had been convicted of murdering their three-year-old daughter and attempting to kill their four-year-old son with a drug overdose to claim the life insurance.

A film of Johnsons visit describes joblessness in the region as mainly attributable to lack of industrialisation and loss in the coalmining industry.

People in eastern Kentucky still call it coal country, even though the decline continued largely unabated and the number of jobs in the industry fell with the passing of each presidency. There were 31,000 under Bill Clinton but fewer than 14,000 by the time George W Bush left power.

The number of people employed in mining in eastern Kentucky has fallen by half since Barack Obama came to power, although the long history of decline has been conveniently put aside in the clamour to blame the current president. The more cautious critics say Obama is anti-coal because of his surrounding policies. But a no less popular position in the region is that it is part of chairman Obamas war on white people.

Beattyville and Lee County did well out of petroleum, too, until the 1980 s. A decade afterward, the largest employers in the town were a factory stimulate uniforms, a data company and a private jail holding prisoners from Vermont. Now, the garment and computer business are run and Vermont has just moved its prisoners to Michigan, where it is cheaper to house them.

The office of the Sturgeon Mining Company, Main Street, Beattyville. Photograph: David Coyle/ Team Coyle for the Guardian

The largest employer in the county is now the school system. There are 5 times as many healthcare workers in eastern Kentucky as miners. Coal country is today little more than a culture identity.

The office of Ed Couriers Sturgeon Mining Company is on the high street. Its few remaining mines involve people excavating coal out of hillsides. Ive been in the coal business since 78 and the last five years Ive been trying to get out of the coal business. Theres no future for it here, he said.

Couriers office is an old store front on Beattyvilles Main street. He nodded towards the window and commented caustically on how many former stores in the once bustling township centre were given over to payday loan companies and charities. One devoted away exactly what he popularly known as the Obama Phone, a free mobile available to anyone on food stamps or other assistance that offer 250 minutes of calls per month.

Things were really good when I came here in 72 and I aimed up remaining. When I came here there were three new car dealerships. There hasnt been a new car dealership here since 89, he told. Theres no future here. I have a sense of sadness. I wish people had a better life.

The War on Poverty lives on through federal awards. Food postages, employment programmes and disability allowance have cushioned many people from the harshest effects of the retreat of jobs from the region. Some families still struggle to put sufficient food on the table but their children are fed if not well in the sense of healthily at school.

Federal money also built Vivian Lunsford a new home a spacious wooden bungalow with a balcony on two sides and forest to the back, constructed in a ravine just outside Beattyville. The narrow road from the town gusts past simple log cabin buried in the trees.

Theyve probably been there since the early 1900 s, she told. I dont know how people live in them. Theyre real basic. Their only go water is the river. But people only maintain remaining there. They dont want to leave. Its the pride. The heritage of that land.

Trailers in Beattyville. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Before getting the house Lunsford, 38, was unemployed and homeless. Her mother shall be used for a grant and a cut-rate mortgage on her daughters behalf without telling her, in order to build a more modern and spacious version of the old timber cabins. Lunsford repays the mortgage at $389 a month, less than it would cost to rent.

Theres so much grant fund went toward it that so long as I live there for 10 years I dont have to pay that grant fund back, she told.

Lunsford was also able to land a chore with the Beattyville housing association that built her home, which she shares these days with her partner and his school-age daughter.

This place is notably poorer. You cant just go out and get a job in McDonalds. A Walmart is an hour away. I can go to my daddys in Florida and the world is like a different place. Here is more stuck in time, she told.

Our homeless situation is really different to a big city. Its couch surfing. Youve get lower income people, grandparents with their children and spouses living there with the grandchildren. Theyre all crammed into this one home. Theres a lot of them.

Other people on the waiting list for new homes wooden bungalows or trailers are what she calls burn down, whose homes were destroyed by fire from candles, kerosene heaters or pot belly stoves. Many of those are in homes unplugged from energy and other utilities to save money.

Utility bills are outrageous in a trailer because they lack insulation. I have a little lady Ive been helping with, Miss Nelly. Shes in her late 70 s. Her electric bill in the wintertime here runs about $400 a month. She cant afford that. Trailers dont hot good, she told. Some people choose not to connect to utilities to save money. A lot of people here, their income is like between $500 and $700 a month. Thats all they get. Thats not a lot, especially if youve got kids and the price of gas and car insurance and youve got all these things that have to be paid.

Sheriff Wendell Bug Childerts. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Still, the rehousing programme is not without its issues. Bob Ball built Lunsfords home. He also built one for a human in his early 20 s called Duke and his wife, both of whom were unemployed and had been living in a caravan.

Ball has since hired Duke as a worker. Federal money keeps the builders business alive but he still commented with a hint of disapproval at the governmental forces fund homes. He got a new home so young. We all paid for that, told Ball.

Through much of the 19 th century, this part of the Bluegrass State was romanticised in stories of rugged frontiersmen and courageous hunters as the epitome of American self-reliance. None more so than Daniel Boone, a hunter and surveyor at the vanguard of resolving Kentucky. A good part of Lee County carves into a national forest named after him.

Cultural heritage here is important, told Dee Davis, whose household was from Lee County, though he grew up in a neighbouring county where he heads the Center for Rural Strategies. The first bestselling fictions were about this region. It was at one time the iconic America. This various kinds of frontier: white , noble. This was the iconography.

By the time Johnson arrived a different image had taken hold that of the anti-modern, moonshine swilling, firearm toting, backwards hillbilly. The stereotype was perpetuated on television by a popular 1960 s slapstick demonstrate, The Beverly Hillbillies, in which unsophisticated mountain folk find petroleum on their land, get rich and move with their handguns, bibles and Confederate pities to live among Californias millionaires.

In 2003, Davis led a campaign against a CBS plan to remake the slapstick as reality television by setting up a poor Appalachian household in a Beverly Hills mansion. One taunting CBS executive remarked on the health risks: Imagine the episode where they have to interview maids.

Davis beat back CBS but said the planned programme reflected a sense that white people living in poorer communities were blamed for their condition.

Theres this feeling here like people are seeming down on you. Feeling like its OK to laugh at you, to pity you. Youre not on the same common ground for purposes of comparison as someone whos better off or living in a better place. That doesnt mean its always true, it only means we was of the view that burden rapidly. Were primed is responding to people we think are looking down on us. That they judge us for our clothes, magistrate us for our car, magistrate us for our income, the way we talk, he told.

This is the poorest congressional district in the United States. I grew up delivering furniture with my dad. No one ever said they were in poverty. Thats a word thats used to magistrate people. You hear them say, I may be a poor human but we live a pretty good life for poor person. People refer to themselves as poor but they wont refer to themselves as in poverty.

Karen Jennings encountered the racism when she first left Beattyville.

When I went to Louisville as a teenager to work in Waffle House I had this country accent. They laughed at me and would like to know whether we even had bathrooms where I come from. People here are judged in the bigger cities and they resent that, she told. The difference is the cities hide their problems. Here its too small to hide them. Theres the medications, and the poverty. Theres a lot of the old people come in here for food. The welfare isnt enough. Three girls in my granddaughters class are pregnant. This is a hard place to grow up. People dont hide it but they resent being judged for it.

Drug epidemic

The stereotype has evolved. Deepest Appalachia may still be thought of as backward and dirt poor but its now also widely known as in the grip of a prescription drug epidemic. Without prompting, its the first thing Steve Mays, Lee Countys de facto mayor, talks about.

Mays is the countys judge-executive, an antiquated title that carries political but no judicial authority. His office is in Beattyville, where he was born and was a policeman for 16 years, half of them as chief of police.

When I worked as a police officer and chief there was medications here and we made a lot of busts, but things are getting worse, he told. We dont have a lot of jobs here. Some people look for a way out. They havent accomplished what they wanted to and theyre just looking for that escape, I guess. They get that high and once it gets a hold of you they have a hard time getting away from it. They dont think the future appears good for them or they dont feel theres any hope so they continue to stay on that drug.

Its people of all ages. You feel sorry for them. Good people. It takes “peoples lives” over. They do things you wouldnt commonly think theyd do. Stealing, writing bad cheques, younger girls prostitute themselves out for drugs.

Mays feels the sting all the more acutely because his daughter was convicted of illegally obtaining medications from a local pharmacy where she worked.

In 2013, drug overdoses accounted for 56% of all accidental deaths in Kentucky and an even higher proportion in the east of the state.

Deputy Sheriff David Stamper on patrol in Beattyville. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Leading the blight is a powerful and highly addictive opioid painkiller, OxyContin, known locally as hillbilly heroin. Typically it is ground down and injected or snorted to give an instant and powerful high.

Its misuse is so routine that the bulk of court cases reported in the local papers are drug associated. Just about everyone in Beattyville has a story of the human expense. Some mention the decline of the towns homecoming queen, Michele Moore, into addiction in the 1990 s. Moore struggled by as a single mother living in a trailer home before she was stabbed to demise by a human while the two were taking drugs.

At about that time, Beattyvilles police chief, Omer Noe, and the Lee County sheriff, Johnny Mann, were to imprisonment for taking bribes to protect drug smugglers. Five year later, the next Lee County sheriff, Douglas Brandenburg, went to prison for a similar crime.

Amid the relentless demolition of life, there is little that shocks. But four years ago residents of Harlan County a couple of hours drive to the south-east were shaken by a series of deaths over six weeks of parents of members of the local boys and girls club. Eleven of the children watched a mother die.

Getting the medications isnt difficult. Elderly people sell their prescription drugs to supplement some of the lowest incomes in the US. The national average retirement income is about $21,500. In Beattyville it is $6,500.

Last year, a pharmacy proprietor in nearby Clay County, Terry Tenhet, was jailed for 10 years for illegally distributing hundreds of thousands of pills after police tied the prescriptions to several overdose deaths. In 2011 alone, he rendered more than 360,000 OxyContin pills in a county with merely 21,000 residents. Those prescriptions were mostly written by doctors in other countries.

Prosecutors alleged that for years a single ache clinic nearly 1,000 miles back in south Florida had provided the prescriptions for a one-quarter of the OxyContin sold in eastern Kentucky. The bus service to Florida is known to police and junkies alike as the Oxy Express.

In 2012, Dr Paul Volkman was sentenced to four life terms for writing illegal prescriptions for more than 3m pills from a clinic he ran in Portsmouth, Ohio, on the border with eastern Kentucky. Prosecutors said the prescriptions had contributed to dozens of overdose deaths.

Another doctor, David Procter, is serving 16 years imprisonment for running a pill mill at which at least four other doctors were involved in the illegal furnish of drugs to eastern Kentucky.

There is little compassion for doctors or pharmacists acting as traders, but there is a position in Beattyville and surrounding townships that people have been exploited by something bigger than a few medics, largely because they are regarded as backward.

Davis said the drug companies aggressively pushed OxyContin and similar medications in a region where, because of a mix of the mining, the rigours of the outdoors and the climate, there was a higher demand for painkillers.

You couldnt go to a doctor without ensure a merchant there. Heres this synthetic opium product thats supposed to be good for palliative care cancer patients and they start selling it as regular ache medicine. They knew how highly addictive it was and they sold it anyway, he told. I live in a town of 1,500 people with seven pharmacies as well as ache clinics and methadone clinics and the full backup industry. Everybody get paid, the physicians and pharmacists and lawyers.

Recently released research shows that abuse of powerful opioid painkillers is in part responsible for a sharp rise in the mortality rate among white middle-aged Americans over the past two decades, particularly less-educated 45 – to 54 -year-olds. The report by academics at Princeton university also blamed misuse of alcohol and an increase in cheaper high quality heroin along with suicides. The researchers said they suspected that financial stress played a part in people taking their lives.

OxyContins manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, was penalised $ 634 m by a federal tribunal in 2007 for misrepresenting the medications addictive effects to doctors and patients. Purdue is now being sued by the Kentucky government. The countries us attorney general, Jack Conway, accuses the company of disguising information about the dangers of the drug in order to further earnings, and its salesperson of claiming OxyContin is less addictive and safer than it is.

I want to hold them accountable in eastern Kentucky for what they did, Conway told the Lexington Herald-Leader. We have lost an entire generation.

Purdue has denied the claim.

Late last year the Beattyville Enterprise reported that pharmacists in the town were appealing to drug companies for greater control over another prescription medicine, Neurontin, which is increasingly in demand and has been found at the scene of overdose deaths. Heroin use is also on the rise.

Ask where people get the money for medications and just about everyone blames it on welfare in general and the trade in what is known locally as pop soft drinks including with regard to.

The west aim of Main Street, Beattyville. Photograph: David Coyle/ Team Coyle for the Guardian

Close to 57% of Beattyville residents claim food stamps. They are paid by electronic transfer on the first of the month. That same day, cases of Pepsi and Coca-Cola are marked down sharply in supermarkets and disappear off the shelves, often paid for with food stamps.

They are then sold on to smaller stores at a lower price than they would pay a distributor, in effect turning several hundred dollars of food stamps into money at about 50 pennies on the dollar.

The pop scam has become shorthand in Beattyville among those who consider welfare as almost as big a blight as the medications themselves.

We have a lot of dope and the like around here, told Wilma Barrett at the food bank. Food postages go to pay for it. You can see it happening and its sickening. Its become a kind of trap for us out here.

Courier, the mining company proprietor, took a similar line, telling welfare had dragged Beattyville down. Its made things worse. Its disincentivised people from even trying. You cant create a handout and expect people to pull themselves up. You have to give them the incentive to improve. I feel sadness that theyre being trapped, he said.

Living on welfare

April Newman scoffed at the idea that she was trapped by welfare. She said it had kept her and her children, aged one to four years old, from near destitution after she escaped a bad six-year relationship.

You definitely do feel resented because I resented myself. People look down on you for it, she said.

In order to get free housing and financial assistance, Newman was obliged to sign on to a Kentucky programme providing financial assistance to low-income families with children in combination with train or volunteering. She receives a living allowance not formally a pay cheque of about $800 a month after signing up with AmeriCorps, a federally operated national service organisation. She also receives $600 in food stamps. The nation covers healthcare costs for the children.

Its hard to get by on that but I have learned. Being on my own and being a single mother, you have to learn to budget. So if I know that school clothes are coming up, or if Christmas is coming up, three to four months in advance, I start to slowly save. That way if things come up, I have the money for it. Ive only learned to save really well, she said.

Newmans federal housing is in a stark block on the edge of township where she doesnt feel particularly safe. I wont be living here long though. Im actually going to try to do better and move out. You cant raise children in places like that, she said.

But to move out, shell need to pay the rent and the prospects for a full-time chore are bleak.

Wilma Barrett does not have much compassion for people in Newmans stance, even though she too has come to rely on government assistance.

We owned a farm and we dig our own coal out of the hill. I had a heart attack and had to quit work four years ago. Thats when I started coming over[ to the food bank ], she told. I have a milk cow, chickens for eggs. We didnt require a hog this year as we had some meat left in the freezer from last year.

Barrett and her husband pull in about $1,100 a month in welfare payments and food stamps. But she has little time for younger people she regards as unwilling to work. If youre not picky about what you do, theres always something. A chore that pays$ 6 an hour is better than zero. I was created on a farm with a couple of mules. I have three children and all of them know how to work.

In the late 19 th century, Beattyville was trumpeted by the investment company developing the town as the gateway to the development of all the great mineral, lumber and agricultural resources of eastern Kentucky.

Closed store front, Main Street, Beattyville. Photograph: David Coyle/ Team Coyle for the Guardian

If a block of timber be hurled into the water west of the mountains dividing Kentucky from Virginia it will wind its way between towering mountains and rich valleys until it floats over the dam at Beattyville. Eastern Kentucky cannot be developed without Beattyville becoming a large and important city, it said.

It was not to be. Within a few years, railways had replaced rivers as the principal means of moving goods and the develops came nowhere near Beattyville. Neither did the road system that spread across America over the 20 th century.

In the end, what eastern Kentucky get was not growth but plunder.

In his distinguished 1963 account of life in the region, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area, Harry Caudill described the avarice and cunning of the coal magnates who left behind few facilities but plenty of suffering.

From the beginning, the coal and timber companies insisted on maintaining all, or nearly all, the wealth they created, wrote Caudill. They were unwilling to plough more than a tiny part of the money they earned back into schools, libraries, health facility and other institutions essential to a balanced, pleasant, productive and civilised society. The knowledge and guile of their directors enabled them to corrupt and cozen all too many of the regions elected officials and to frustrate the legitimate aspirations of the people.

Even during the War on Poverty, as billions of dollars were poured into the region, programmes were hijacked to serve political leaders and fund was diverted by members of Congress to prop up subsistence in constituencies far from those for which it was intended.

Yet ask who is responsible for Beattyvilles woes today and fingers in the town frequently point at one human.

Since Obama its was a bad, told Courier. Theres the economy but also a lot of EPA[ Environmental Protection Agency] regulations. Theres been a lot of changes in the law over the past two or three years with hollow mining. As for large-scale mining here, its finished. I employed 50 people at the peak. Now its six.

The numbers dont back up Couriers asserts. The industry has been in decline for decades. Coal production in eastern Kentucky has fallen by 63% since 2000. Mechanisation ate into the number of jobs long before that.

Abandoned coal, Beattyville. Photograph: David Coyle/ Team Coyle for the Guardian

Davis said there had been a political campaign by the mining industry to blame the government for the decline led by an industry-funded group, The Friend of Coal.

In the coincide of the decline of coal employment creation and the corresponding decline in the economy, the Friends of Coal campaign went from car displays and football match to music events it was very culture and began to deflect pressure on the industry to blaming government policy. They put up posters: Stop the war on coal, he said.

Were in a place right now where a tonne of coal costs about $68 to mine in eastern Kentucky and about $12 to mine in Wyoming. Theyre importing more Wyoming coal here than theyre using east Kentucky coal. But if you ask people why this is, its Obama. They wont blame the market, they blame the policy. Its been very convenient to change it to the black guy.

Hostility to the USs first black chairman runs deep. In an editorial, Beattyvilles largest circulation newspaper, Three Forks Tradition, described Obama as trying to destroy the United States as we know it. It accused him of waging war on Anglo-Saxon males, who work for a living, believe in God and the right to keep and bear arms and called the president and his then attorney general, Eric Holder, race baiters with blood on their hands.

He has driven racial wedges between the people that will take generations to heal, the editorial told without irony.

Vivian Lunsford pushed a page torn from a small notepad across her desk at the housing association. The writing on it was in pencil in capital letter. It was a tribute to Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky senator who is the Republican leader in the US Senate. Mitch will keep us good, it told, adding he would protect Kentucky from people who were against coal.

My stepdaughter wrote that, told Lunsford. Shes too young to think it for herself. God knows who put that into her head. It wasnt me. But thats how they think around here. Shes hears it at school. She hears it from her friends and their parents. You hear it a lot.

Another Beattyville resident offered a forthright assessment of Republican support in the town.

Its crazy, it really is. Its not only this county, its the surrounding districts. Theres so many people on welfare and yet they vote Republican and its crazy. Im embarrassed, I truly am. I understand a lot of its because theyre afraid what colour is our chairman, and thats what they go on, the person or persons said.

A few hours later the resident asked not to be named because although every word I said is true it would upset people around here.

Deputy Sherrif David Stamper stops off at the Saturday local college basketball game. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

Steve Mays, Lee Countys de facto mayor, is a Republican. He has a picture of McConnell on the shelf behind his desk. I like Mitch. Hes very supportive of me when I require awards or something. He always tries to come through for me, told Mays.

But only a few months earlier, McConnell had claimed massive numbers of people were receiving food stamps who probably shouldnt and described the programme as making it overly easy to be non-productive.

This put Mays in a bind. His party routinely demonises people who receive welfare but many of his voters rely on it. Mays said he regarded welfare as a trap, but acknowledged that without it the town would die.

Its catch 22. I dont know what you do. I consider people who really require the help. I consider them in this office every day. They struggle and couldnt make it without it. But I consider some people taking advantage of it too, he told. Im not altogether against welfare. I dont think only anybody should get it, I dont agree with that. Theres people that need it but its taken advantage of by people that could work. But Im not one of the individuals who says there shouldnt be welfare.

Still, he recognise the seeming contradiction of people voting for a party that was so scornful of the government assistance their township survived on.

Youre right, Republican are against that. But thats not why people around here are registered Republican. Its because of local nominees or family history. My dad was Republican. Im raised a Republican and voting Republican. Thats just the way it is, he said.

This is routinely, and sometimes sneeringly, characterised by Democrat in other parts of America as poor white people voting against their own interests. Its a view that exasperates Davis.

They say, why arent these people voting their self-interest? People always vote their self-interest if they can see it. If they believe the government doesnt work, if they believe that the Democrat dont truly give a shit about people like them, dont want to be in the same room with them, they want their referendum but dont wishes to hang out with them, then as they see it theyre voting their self-interest, he told.

So whats the future?

Its bad. I dont think rural America has a future, told Courier. The advantage rural areas had in the past of inexpensive labour is go. We used to have a lot of little mills in this area but theyve gone to Mexico or China. In rural areas housing is cheaps but everything else costs more. Utility rates are higher. Food and transport are higher. Management doesnt want to live in rural areas. Education is horrible here. This is a third-world county. My children grew up here until the latter are eight or nine, then they went to school in Louisville[ a 145 -mile drive away ]. I wouldnt send them to school here.

An abandoned railroad coal-loading station, Beattyville. Photograph: David Coyle/ Team Coyle for the Guardian

Mays worried that Beattyville and Lee County were losing their best trained while the most dependent remained. These children come out of high school and alumnu with honors, and go on to alumnu college. Weve got a lot of them. Theres a lot of smart people here but theres not a lot of opportunity for them here once they graduate college. Normally they wont stay here. We need to find a way to encourage them to stay, he said.

Just as the railways and freeways bypassed Beattyville in the last century, so high-speed internet has failed to penetrate through to the town in more recent times. Most people rely on slow and costly connections through satellite providers. Its a further despair to businesses.

Mays said the county was rooting its hopes for the future in more rustic pastimes. Weve get rock climbing and four districts here just got together and invested in a recreation park for off-road vehicles. Were trying to get canoes on the river. Weve got a lot of cabins here and a lot of people coming here from all over this country. Were trying to work on that facet of it because thats what weve get going for us. We only require a infringe, told Mays.

I feel positive about the future. I wouldnt want to live anywhere else but Lee County. Weve get our problems but weve get good people Ive find people with a lot of money that wouldnt dedicate $10 to help someone out but in this area even people who dont have a lot, when someone get down and sick, or if theyve get cancer, they band together and they raise as much fund because they can for that person to help them.

I feel like the drug problem is our biggest issue. Not merely does it destroy lives but the economic situation. If a companys not going to come in because they dont have a lot of workforce to choose from, or dont feel like they do, theres your jobs run. And then people that move out of here. A lot of people move out of here to bigger places to find jobs. So your population starts going down even more. I dont know how to change that. Im not smart enough to say how to do it. But if somehow it could be reined in, I think we could grow.

So, is the American Dream dead in Beattyville?

If you dont experience the American Dream, if youve never been taken out of the box, I dont think you believe in it, told Vivian Lunsford: People have to be able to see or feel it or touch it to believe.

Ed Courier said it lived on, but merely for those who escaped Beattyville. Theres opportunities if you go to college. But not for those who stay here. This place is being left behind, he said.

April Newman with Olivia aged two and one-year-old Jonathan. I dont want to stay here. I dont want my children sitting there, she told. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian

April Newman agreed with that sentiment. She saw her dream being fulfilled far from Beattyville. I truly want to be a educator and I have to get out of this town to do that, she told. Theres no alternatives here. I dont want to stay here. I dont want my children sitting there. Theres so much that goes on. Its just really sad.

Dee Davis said the American Dream lived on even for those who could not escape Beattyville, but in a different way. Its not the dream of the immigrants so much as the dream of being OK, of surviving, he said.

This article was amended on 13 November 2015 to remove an image that was inconsistent with the Protector editorial guidelines.

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