As part of an ongoing series with our partners at NewsHour, we sent reporter Lisa Desjardins out to rural North Carolina. And out there, we found a large group of people and a very large issue that the truth is the campaigns have nearly ignored.
It is a place rich in landscapes and in spirit, fiercely proud of its Appalachian heritage. But amid that beauty and strength, the towns of Western North Carolina are struggling, and many feel no one is listening.
Watch the full report above, or read the transcript below:
MARK TRUDELL, North Carolina: I don’t have a savings. It is pretty much paycheck to paycheck.
DARLA DIETZ, North Carolina And I don’t think politicians realize how many of us. This is the face of poverty.
LESLIE DIETZ: They don’t understand that there are people that actually try to get by and honestly make a living, and they automatically assume the worst.
LISA DESJARDINS: It’s a conversation happening far outside of Washington.
As the economy slowly improves in many places, here in Wilkes County, at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, by many accounts, times are getting tougher. Wilkes saw median income plunge 30 percent since the year 2000 down to $33,000 per household. That’s the second steepest drop in wealth in the nation.
NARRATOR: Every day is Saturday in these thriving mountain towns.
LISA DESJARDINS: This was Wilkesboro, the county seat, in 1948, then a prosperous mountain town with bustling shops, a booming furniture industry and thriving agriculture.
But now 23.4 percent of people here live in poverty. That’s well above the national rate of 14.5 percent. What does poverty mean? An individual making just under $12,000 a year. Here, the poultry industry is one of the few remaining large employers. Tyson Foods employs 2,600 people across the county.
Mark Trudell welcomed us to his new home, a trailer he and his wife, Peggy (ph), just moved into and are in the process of fixing up.
MARK TRUDELL: We shop at the thrift stores, the habitat restore, and, if it’s broke, I fix it.
LISA DESJARDINS: Mark works stocking shelves at a grocery store for minimum wage, $7.25 an hour. As his kitchen shows, he is highly organized. But he has other skills, lighting and plumbing. He helps his neighbors for free, but he has little security for himself.
MARK TRUDELL: I have never ever, ever in my life drawn unemployment, even though I was entitled to it, I paid into it.
LISA DESJARDINS: Fifty-year-old Darla Dietz lives in a home she rents with her husband, Terry (ph). Terry is 52 years old, but a degenerative brain disease is eroding his mind now to the capacity of a 3-year-old. That makes Darla his full-time caregiver, bathing him, making his meals, constantly watching him.
DARLA DIETZ: He doesn’t know how many children we have, their ages. It’s very hard when you have a history with somebody for so long, and yet you’re the only with the memories.
LISA DESJARDINS: The couple live off Terry’s disability check, $1,234 a month.
DARLA DIETZ: I’m out of benefits right now, so, this week, it’s go to a food pantry. It’s hope I sell a pair of earrings. It’s getting with my daughter-in-law. Hey, what do you have? What do you have? And that’s life.
LISA DESJARDINS: The earrings and jewelry Darla sells sometimes determine if she will have gas for the car or diapers for her husband.
Getting to our next stop was a challenge up a steep muddy clay road to Darla’s daughter-in-law’s house. Leslie Dietz lives with her husband and three children in her mother’s trailer.
LESLIE DIETZ: My husband just started working again. My mom, of course, has Social Security. She’s got COPD. This is her property, so, luckily, we have my mom. It’s been since, I think, last year that he was working. So, it’s paycheck to paycheck. And there are times when he works, when he doesn’t work, because, like I said, we get snowed in, rained in, it’s a hard place to be at.
LISA DESJARDINS: In rural America, lack of transportation, health care needs and feeling ignored by politicians are all reasons the poor vote less and have less power.
GENE NICHOL, University of North Carolina School of Law: If we had a bunch of low-income Americans in this room, they would say, why bother to vote? They would say, with real justice, neither of these parties pays any attention to the likes of me. I’m not going to bother with politics because politics doesn’t do me any good.
LISA DESJARDINS: Gene Nichol is a law professor and poverty expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
GENE NICHOL: In the United States, with the system we have, it’s a little closer to $1 one vote than it is to one person one vote. So, low-income people are already disadvantaged in that skewed system.
And then low-income people frequently have that tradition of participating less often, less vigorously.
LISA DESJARDINS: The gap between voters and nonvoters breaks down strongly along class lines. In the 2012 presidential election, 80.2 percent of those making more than $150,000 voted, but only 46.9 percent of those making less than $10,000 voted.
We asked Darla, Leslie, and Mark if they think candidates are taking them into consideration this election year.
DARLA DIETZ: I don’t think they realize that there’s this class of people who are able-bodied. What I would give for a full-time job and benefits. We typically think of poverty to be a demographic that you normally associate with downtown areas and — but this is it too. And they don’t see that.
LESLIE DIETZ: I hear one talking about taking care of our children, and I hear one say giving us jobs. Do I think they’re really going to do it? No.
LISA DESJARDINS: Do you think they’re talking about you?
LESLIE DIETZ: No.
MARK TRUDELL: I haven’t heard anything come out of a politician’s mouth that would help us in a very long time.
I mean, if they came down here and saw how people are actually living in rural America, then maybe they would change it. Maybe they would do something. But the infrastructure of the country is falling apart. And there’s mass amounts of money that could be put in redoing it and giving people work to do it. But they don’t see it. They don’t — they don’t come down here and look at this.
LISA DESJARDINS: Donald Trump has made campaign stops in rural parts of the country, including one in nearby Statesville, North Carolina, in August. But unlike his rival, Hillary Clinton, he doesn’t have a specific plan to combat rural poverty. She does.
But neither candidate gives poverty the attention of earlier decades, like 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson went on a poverty tour before launching his war on poverty, or 1968, when then presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy made his own two-day trip to investigate poverty in Appalachia.
Gene Nichol says Americans have learned to turn their eyes away from poverty.
GENE NICHOL: We go about our daily lives without thinking about it. Maybe there’s economic hardships, but it’s on the other side of town or the other side of the county, or, here, the other side of state.
Maybe the hardship is even so pronounced, that it gives the lie to our claims of equal dignity and opportunity. But we never see it.
LISA DESJARDINS: Mark Trudell hasn’t thought of voting as an opportunity in a long time. But that has changed. He just registered to vote, and plans to cast his first ballot since voting for Ross Perot in 1992.
Darla Dietz, she’s going to try to make it to a polling place on Election Day, if she can get someone to take care of her husband. And for Leslie Dietz, she says politicians offer her nothing, and she turns to faith instead. We saw her teaching Sunday school, a lesson about biblical leader Moses. For her, it’s a question of morality.
LESLIE DIETZ: I kind of feel strongly about teaching them in Sunday school, because I can make sure that they know the difference between right and wrong, what’s moral, what’s ethical, you know? And I really don’t want to get involved in something that I think is unethical.
LISA DESJARDINS: So, she has no plans to vote this November for either candidate running for president.
For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Lisa Desjardins in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Back to the campaign.
Late today, Politico is reporting the latest shakeup in Donald Trump’s effort. The national political director is stepping down, citing personal reasons.