In this blog, I’ve tended to highlight the scenic beauty and personal richness of the Ozarks, qualities that I cherish. But there’s another side, one that as my book series continues will be drawn out more–it’s a part of the country where grinding poverty has persisted for generations.
I recently had called to my attention a county-by-county map the New York Times produced last year, showing how much of a county’s income consisted of government benefits. The national average is 17.6 percent, with Social Security making up the largest chunk of that amount at 5.6 percent. Government programs aimed at the poor–Medicaid and the collection of programs generally termed “welfare”–make up about another 5 percent, with Medicare at 4.1 and unemployment insurance just over 1 percent and veterans’ benefits about half a percent. A link to the map is here.
By contrast, in Reynolds County, the county where I grew up, more than 42 percent of the county’s income comes from government transfer programs. Social Security and Medicare account for about 22 percent of residents’ income, reflecting the county’s older-than-average population, while Medicaid and “welfare” make up another 16 percent, more than double the national average. This pattern is repeated in counties all over the Ozarks, particularly on the east side (although Hickory County on the west side “wins” the government-dependence prize for Missouri with nearly 47 percent of residents’ income coming from government sources; Wayne County, where I have also lived in years past, comes in second with 45 percent).
The Ozarks are a very poor area, and without those government programs, they would be appallingly poor. Ironically, many of my friends, people I grew up with, are among the most anti-government people I know.