The question always comes up with Democratic audiences. It came up constantly during the first 10 days of my annual road trip—in Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania and at a house party that more than 30 people attended in Charleston, W.Va. “Why,” asked a lawyer named Ted Kanner, “do so many middle-class and poor white people vote against their economic self-interest?” Lawyers and educators, the heart of the liberal upper middle class, tend to ask this question. It has been popular since Thomas Frank’s entertaining but not very substantial screed What’s the Matter with Kansas? became a liberal cult classic. It is a question that is usually asked by people who equate more government programs, and higher taxes, with better lives for the working poor. There is much truth to that: in this killer recession, government entitlement programs have helped, the earned income tax credit has helped, unemployment insurance and food stamps have certainly helped. But it is only part of the truth.
And when you talk to the working poor and those plummeting from the middle class, as I did the past few days in southeastern Ohio, you find that most think of government as an abstraction—a thick, messy, bureaucratic one—and that on the ground, immediately, their self-interest, economic and otherwise, is served most faithfully by their churches and the faith-based programs that feed them, treat their addictions and provide community and a safe haven for their children. There has been an economic collapse—factories have closed, and they probably aren’t coming back—but there has been a moral collapse as well. Drugs, divorce and out-of-wedlock births have devastated these communities. Charles Murray, the libertarian counter to Thomas Frank, delivered this argument in his recent book Coming Apart. But the problem isn’t just moral collapse or economic collapse. It’s a combination of the two, with a lot of crass materialism and relentless globalization thrown in. This is an incredibly sad story, one that neither liberals nor conservatives who opine from above fully understand.
Let me introduce you to Ed Burris, a landscape contractor in the Appalachian town of Gallipolis, Ohio. Ed was addicted to prescription pills like Percocet and Oxycontin for 21 years. He started when he was a freshman in high school. “Peer pressure,” he said, “and there were some family scars I needed to forget.” Six years ago, he attended his brother’s baptism and found God. He got clean soon after in a faith-based drug program called the Field of Hope Community Campus. “And now my brother, who was baptized, is addicted to methamphetamine, which is a wicked, wicked drug,” he said. “We’re really struggling with this. But with the economy—the factories have all gone—and the poverty, you can get sucked into drugs real easily.”
I met Ed at a Sunday-afternoon town meeting in nearby Jackson, organized by Susan Rogers, who runs the RSVP of the Ohio Valley, a national-service program affiliated with AmeriCorps. The meeting was held downtown, in Janelle’s Fresh Baked Goods Shop. It was attended by about 20 people doing good works in the community, including Jackson’s mayor, Randy Heath, and a young state representative, Ryan Smith, a Republican who was one of three people who choked up while talking about their town. There were representatives of government programs like Dr. Ken Murray and his wife Cassandra, who run a local mental-health clinic. Ken said he’d seen a lot of families fall apart, with the parents losing custody of their children to the state and unable to get them back because it was hard to find jobs and straighten out their lives. Cassandra began to tear up when she described a parenting program the clinic ran before the program was shut down by Governor John Kasich’s budget cuts.
The bright line between public and faith-based programs was smudged in Jackson. Several of the ministers in the room, like Tony Conley, work with Dr. Murray or other public programs. But the preponderance of good works—feeding and clothing the poor, treating the addicts—seemed to be done by the churches, and the ministers had many of the same problems as their parishioners. Kevin Dennis, who runs the Field of Hope program, has a relative who is serving time in prison for drug offenses. Terry Witt, whose great-grandmother was one of the famous feuding McCoys, ran Transforming Lives thru Christ Ministries, but her husband was hit by a semi, and in his pain and hopelessness he became addicted to pills. “God has not forsaken this place,” she said. “Man has.”
And public officials, while conservative, are trying to get government funding to help the area. Smith, a former financial adviser, said he had maps on his office wall that showed the Jackson area ranking first in the state in poverty among senior citizens and children. “I want to keep that in mind every day,” he said. For Heath, both the federal and state governments were oppressive. “The Obama Administration is dragging its heels in permitting new coal-fired plants,” he said, adding that he was required to spend an unfunded $17 million on improvements to his sewage-treatment plant, which would raise local taxes significantly. “You have some people in Washington and Columbus who want us to live in a perfect world,” he said, “and that would be nice, but we just can’t afford it.”
It sometimes seemed, as I listened to these people, that the job of government, both federal and state—and believe me, many people don’t know the difference—was to throw up roadblocks to economic progress and cut funding for necessary programs. The job of the local faith-based community was more immediate: to comfort and console. But the federal government also wrote a lot of cold, impersonal checks—unemployment, old-age entitlement, disability—that kept people alive. With all these complicated forces tearing at their lives and helping them get by, it was difficult for an average Jacksonian to figure out where his or her economic self-interest actually was in standard political terms.
The next day, I visited the Journey’s End Ministries food pantry in Newcomerstown, a few hours north of Jackson. This, too, was faith-based—funded by 30 local churches and housed in an old auto dealership. The place was humming with elderly volunteers. “This is a choice pantry,” said Janet Gore, its director. “We don’t just hand them a sack of goods. They can pick what they want.”
I spent the morning talking to the people who went in looking for food. Most were unemployed or divorced or raising their grandchildren. Most received some form of federal stipend. They seemed equally divided among Republicans, Democrats and the terminally alienated. But they had found something at Journey’s End that they couldn’t find at government agencies: a loving community that wasn’t judgmental. Some of the recipients even volunteered in their spare time. “Seventy-five percent of the people in this area qualify for food stamps,” Gore told me. “Seventy-five percent of the kids qualify for the school-lunch program.” She was for those programs and for Obamacare as well, although she assumed it would be shot down by the Supreme Court. “For religious folk like us, gay marriage is a no-no,” she said, adding that she voted for Obama in 2008 and was thinking about voting for Mitt Romney this year because she was disappointed that Obama hadn’t revived the economy. But politics was peripheral in her life, taking a backseat by far to the daily joys she felt in the food pantry. “You can just feel how happy we are, how blessed to do this work,” Gore said. “Can’t you?” Yes, I could.
Editor’s note: This column appears in the new issue of TIME, which hit newsstands on Friday, June 15.