Bernie Sanders is the first presidential candidate to visit McDowell County, West Virginia, since John F. Kennedy visited in the early 1960s. The Vermont senator participated in a panel on poverty, in which approximately 250 people attended. The location visited was no coincidence. The rural area has some of the highest levels of poverty in the nation, with a typical income of just $23,607 per year, according to a study done by 24/7 Wall St.
Sanders spoke of the cycle of poverty, and how it often leads to drug use and addiction and vice versa. He laid out the cold, hard numbers as they apply to McDowell County and West Virginia overall.
“And McDowell County … is one of the poorest counties in one of the poorest states in America. In 2014, over 35 percent of the residents in McDowell County lived in poverty, including nearly half of the children under the age of 18. In McDowell County, not only is it hard to find a job … it’s hard to find a grocery store, a dentist, a mental health provider, or a primary care physician.”
The statistics he provided for the county alone are astounding.
- Roads are crumbling and often dangerous.
- No colleges exist in the county.
- Fewer than half of adults have graduated from high school.
- More than two-thirds of households have no wastewater treatment.
The last point results in more than 300,000 gallons of sewage being dumped into streams and rivers, leaving them polluted and rife with dangerous microbes.
Sanders also noted that in McDowell County, the leading causes of death are suicide and drug overdoses.
“In fact, the highest percentage of drug overdoses in West Virginia is in McDowell County. And McDowell has the lowest life expectancy in the entire nation. The average life expectancy for men in this county is just 64 years.”
Sanders also pointed out that McDowell County is exactly the kind of place he has often referred to in his stump speeches when talking about poverty, access to medical care, and income inequality.
“When I talk about the need to think big, to think outside of the box, and to reject incremental change, I am talking about McDowell County and the thousands of other communities that have been tossed out, left behind, and abandoned by the rich and the powerful.”
Sanders called for rebuilding the infrastructure, from roads, bridges, and water systems, to wastewater plants and the electrical grid. He even included broadband internet in his infrastructure proposals, which has become a necessity for many people, rather than a luxury. He stressed the need for better education so children will have better opportunities to find employment.
Sanders criticized U.S. trade policies that allowed companies to ship vital jobs overseas. West Virginia, he said, has lost more than 30,000 jobs since Bill Clinton signed NAFTA.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports that several residents in attendance told Sanders their own personal stories. Part-time library clerk Erica Lucas tearfully explained her situation.
“The stress is unbearable, living in poverty. And you don’t have anything else, so either you take drugs or you fight through.”
Lucas has no heat in her home and talked of being able to see her breath when she wakes up in the morning. The only source of heat, she said, was a wood-burning stove. She is just one of hundreds of people in the county fighting for survival. Another resident spoke of getting addicted to drugs and spending time in jail. Now out of jail, she can’t find work. It’s a never-ending cycle, and one that is difficult to get out of.
NPR spoke with Sanders the day before he headed to McDowell County. He discussed the problems facing the residents there, and touched on the issues facing the Democratic Party. In 2008, the county voted for Barack Obama. In 2012, however, the county voted for Mitt Romney. He spoke of the Democratic Party’s failure to support the Middle Class and instead, bow to the interests of Wall Street.
“…I think there are many people around this country — poor people, working people — who believe that the Democratic Party is not effectively standing up to them. Now, if I lived in McDowell County and the unemployment rate was sky-high, and I saw my kid get addicted to opiates and go to jail, there were no jobs, you know what? I would be looking at Washington and saying, ‘what are you guys doing for me?’ And I’m going to look for an alternative.”
Sanders’ visit to West Virginia wasn’t just to McDowell County. The Senator also spoke at the South Charleston Community Center to a crowd of 1,000. He then headed to Morgantown for his evening rally where he spoke to a crowd of more than 3,000 people. Several attendees at the event were medical professionals who liked what they heard.
Morgantown resident, doctor, and Vietnam veteran Larry Schwab told WV Metro News what he likes about Bernie Sanders.
“In my mind he’s very much like a European politician for the community, someone who is capable of leading others in a program to support all of our citizens rather than a few.”
Katharine Dubansky, another doctor, discussed her personal reasons for attending Sanders’ rally.
“You know, you have to take it all with a grain of salt, but I feel like it’s the first time I’ve heard a candidate that is speaking to a lot of things I find to be important for me and my family.”
Just a few days remain before the West Virginia primaries and Sanders’ visit comes at an important time in the Democratic race. A new poll by Public Policy Polling, published May 3, puts Sanders ahead of Clinton by 8 points. He currently leads at 45 percent to Clinton’s 37 percent.
The pollster interviewed 1,201 West Virginia voters; 637 of which are likely Democratic primary voters. The poll revealed that more voters see Sanders favorably than Hillary Clinton, but 18 percent of likely Democratic primary voters still remained unsure of who to vote for. Sanders’ visit to McDowell County may convince some to vote for him on Tuesday.
[Photo byKeith Srakocic/APImages]