These are hard times in much of Trump Country. Fentress County, northwest of Knoxville, voted overwhelmingly (82.5 percent) for Trump. About 34 percent of households in Fentress have annual income of less than $20,000, compared with 18 percent nationally.
Leonard Anderson, a musician who’s lived his entire life in Fentress, strummed guitar, hummed a harmonica and sang his song, “Hard Times,” last month to a group from Raleigh gathered in the cafeteria of Allardt Elementary School.
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I went to the food bank the other day,
Just to help them give some food away.
They took one look at my ragged jeans,
And handed me some pork and beans....
Hard times, knuckle down and buckle down,
Hard times, you gotta knuckle down and buckle down.
The Raleigh residents, mostly teens, were participating in Appalachia Service Project, a home-repair ministry started in 1969 by a Methodist minister. The project operates 26 centers in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.
For eight weeks this summer, church groups from across the country will arrive at Allardt Elementary and the other centers for a week. During the course of a summer, as a different crew arrives each Monday, a home can be transformed. The project’s mantra is: Warmer. Safer. Drier.
This summer, 31 Triangle churches will send more than 1,000 volunteers to work with Appalachia Service Project, ranging from a two-person crew from Zebulon United Methodist to a team of 99 from Cary’s First United Methodist.
The hard times in Fentress County, and the area’s flinty, backwoods culture, are similar to those described by J.D. Vance in his best-selling book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance grew up in Rust Belt Ohio and Appalachian Kentucky. After graduating from high school, he served in the Marine Corps and then went to college and then to Yale Law School.
Vance, now 32, escaped a defeatist, disintegrating culture of low expectations that kept reeling him back.
In his community, J.D. Vance wrote, people believed the modern American meritocracy was not built for them.
His mother had drug problems and a long list of husbands and boyfriends. But his maternal grandparents took care of him, loved him, and told him they believed in him. He escaped (and changed his last name to that of his grandparents). But it was close. At several points, he nearly succumbed to a culture that told him people like him stayed like people like him, piecing together low-wage jobs or trying to game the government welfare system.
In his community, Vance wrote, people believed the modern American meritocracy was not built for them. “What separates the successful from the unsuccessful are the expectations that they had for their own lives,” Vance wrote.
Vance described the findings of a project that studied how Americans evaluated their chances at economic betterment. “There is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working-class whites,” Vance wrote. “Well over half of blacks, Latinos, and college-educated whites expect that their children will fare better economically than they have. Among working-class whites, only 44 percent share that expectation.”
Vance wrote of returning to his hometown as an adult and feeling like an outsider: “And what turned me into an alien was my optimism.”
Beating the odds
Jane Rex, who runs the transfer students’ office at Appalachian State University, is in “Hillbilly Elegy.” Vance counts Rex as another person who beat the odds.
Rex, 60, grew up in Pennsylvania as the daughter of a couple who owned a bar and restaurant. She was the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college. She and her husband of 38 years have three successful adult children.
Before she worked at Appalachian State, she worked at a community college for 23 years. The university campus in Boone was only a few miles away. But she knew people at the community college who had never been to the university campus. To them, Appalachian State was not a place where they could see themselves.
“How do you bring the exposure and expectation of education to a culture that might be fearful of education or not have an understanding of it?” she said to me this week. For many high school students, she said, “It’s not that the student wasn’t capable of going to college; it’s that the conversation never occurred.”
In Fentress County, 11 percent of adults have a four-year college degree compared with 30 percent in the United States. Two of the Fentress residents with degrees are the daughters of Leonard Anderson, the singer (and writer) of “Hard Times”; his daughters are school teachers.
Anderson, 68, didn’t attend college. He’s worked as a butcher, a cobbler, a carpenter, a construction worker and in a manufacturing plant. He’s a talented man and he made a living. But he emphasized education with his daughters. “You got that piece of paper (a degree), that shows you had the grit to go out there and get it,” he said.
He considers himself retired but he’s applied for a janitor’s job at his grandchildren’s school. “It’s not below me to be a janitor. I’ll do whatever I need to do,” Anderson said. “We’re just trying to get by.”