City, country – both need help.
When you grow up in a small town, I think you get to observe life, people and their character more closely than growing up in urban areas. My hometown had 3,500 people in the 70s, and today it’s around 4,300 according to the US Census Bureau. It’s easy to get to know a lot of the townsfolk when numbers and geography are more compact. Why?
First, you frequently see the same folks (weekly or more), versus living in Lexington where I might run into someone outside my neighborhood once a year or less. Next, how you live your small town life is more apparent to more folks, which is another way of saying people do talk. Besides, when you know you’re not likely to get away with bad behavior, most of us are more careful about how we act, and that’s often a hard lesson for kids to learn (he said knowingly). Hearing people talk about others over the years gives you greater insight into people’s behaviors and lets you peek more deeply into their character.
That attention to character is almost a reflex when you leave your small town. You’ve had the opportunity to more closely examine people’s lives and you recognize behaviors in others more quickly, and this brings me to my point: There is often a difference in (and excuse this pejorative-sounding term) city poor and country poor. Granted, I’ve not lived in Scottsville for a long time but, from conversations with folks from there — some who still live there and some who’ve moved here — my premise rings true with them. Allow me to explain.
Growing up, there were lots of poor folks and, given how many there were, we didn’t consider them poor per se. They were just country folk who, for the majority, chose to live a simpler life. Despite living in the city limits, I went to the county school so many of my classmates were those country kids. Of those with the most meager resources, most were still self-sufficient; sure, a few were simply lazy, but most were hard working people. Allow me to use a classmate as an example, and we’ll call him Horatio. He came to school each day smelling of wood smoke because that’s how his family heated their home, cooked their meals and got hot water for baths and laundry.
Brogans – a familiar sight in my hometown.
There was no shame because he had lots of company, and maybe still does. Their home was sturdy, but constructed mostly of found materials with one room having a hard packed dirt floor. He wore “brogans” as many of the farm kids did because they were sturdy, inexpensive and you could work in them if need be. He usually wore white socks, overalls (often with “high water” legs), a button-up shirt and a burr haircut which was easily dispensed at home. Horatio was one of the cleanest kids in school with never a speck of dirt under his fingernails. His clothes were always spotless even if they were worn. His manners were impeccable and, even though he had one heck of a country accent, he was well-spoken and intelligent.
Next, let me be clear: I am not condemning any poor urban dweller. There are plenty who, like Horatio and his family, are honest, hard-working folks. I’ve worked with and been friends with folks who live in areas some would call slums or centers of urban decay. The difference is much more subtle than clothes or homes – it’s the attitude with which they regard the world.
Gotta love country living
Families like Horatio’s can be far more self-sufficient than their city poor counterparts because, if they need fuel, there’s always a fallen tree that can be chopped up; the produce from gardens is canned; food comes from the end of a rifle because there are many deer and other game animals, and a fishing pole is just as handy. Country poor can often support themselves in ways those living “in town” cannot. In my experience, this gives them a larger measure of dignity due to their self-sufficiency.
Add in that the urban poor often must rely on “the system” to make ends meet. Welfare, subsidized housing, food stamps and the array of other government programs support them, but they also now must rely on what some in my experience have called “shitty hand-outs.” As someone I know who lives in a rougher part of town put it, “You take all the government assistance and, for some, it’s a lifeline but, for others, it destroys the need to make something of themselves.” What that says to me is that their dignity has been diminished, and dignity is a crucial human element.
How crucial? “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen,” said Louis Zamperini, and he should know. He was held prisoner in WWII for over three years and endured some of the harshest conditions imaginable.* Despite his captor’s efforts to demoralize him, he endured the starvation and beatings and survived when many perished. While his situation was dire indeed, he credits keeping his dignity about him as being crucial to his survival. His quote underlines what I’m trying to say: Country poor have the opportunity to maintain their dignity in ways many disadvantaged inner city folks do not.
I’m sure many will say this is hogwash, and perhaps it is. I’m only expressing what I’ve seen in my life and show my appreciation for something special about life in a small town, something that seems more rare in cities.
The original war on poverty with LBJ, Lady Bird and former governor Ned Breathitt front and center.
*I strongly encourage you to read Laura Hillenbrand’s book about Zamperini, ” Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, “ because he is an amazing man who conquered incredible odds and went on to be a positive force in people’s lives.