Tasha Lamm has been trying to leave southeast Ohio for years. She and her girlfriend and her two sons have moved from place to place over the years, sometimes struggling with homelessness.
“I hate this place. It’s a hellhole and it is negative. It just sucks you dry,” she said.
Lamm’s story is not unique in Appalachian Ohio. The area has been plagued with poverty for decades.
It’s been 56 years since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson unveiled his plan for a ‘Great Society’ on the steps of Ohio University in Athens and pledged to eliminate rural poverty and racial injustice across America.
Despite many programs and initiatives, much of Appalachian Ohio still has child poverty rates higher than 30%, according to U.S. Census figures.
Southeast Ohio used to be largely Democratic, but the former coal towns have turned fiercely Republican, despite many families benefiting from programs like cash assistance and food stamps.
“I didn’t like LBJ,” said Greg Fraunfelter, the Republican mayor of Logan, Ohio.
“They wanted a hand up and what it has become is we have three or four, five generations that are living by hand out,” he said of Ohio residents. “Everybody wants to be given something.”
In 2016, every county surrounding Athens voted for Donald Trump as president. Residents held onto his promise of bringing back manufacturing jobs to Ohio. Unemployment numbers were already high in the region before the coronavirus pandemic led to more job losses.
In an area that’s overwhelmingly white, Trump’s sometimes racist comments about immigrants and people of color don’t seem to bother some residents.
“His rhetoric sometimes is not all that great. I mean, he can make people mad, but at the forefront, I do feel like he has the United States number 1,” said Corey Hine, a resident of Nelsonville, Ohio.
Geoffrey West, a Black barbershop owner in Athens, Ohio, said he doesn’t understand that disconnect in the support for Trump from many voters in Ohio.
“They see the things he (Trump) does, they see the things he says, they see the way he acts — women, in particular — but yet… I don’t get it. I mean, I really don’t get it,” he said.
Jack Frech, who served as the Athens County Welfare Director for 33 years said politicians — including President Trump — have used “race as a wedge to keep poor people apart.”
He said the prejudice exhibited toward poor people in this country is “entirely linked” with racial prejudice and that the problems plaguing poor white people in areas like southeast Ohio are similar to those of poor people of color in urban areas of the country — namely unemployment, issues with the criminal justice system and substance abuse, among others.
Lamm is trying to break her own cycle of poverty and provide a better life for her children, steering clear of drugs that have taken the lives of so many people in her life.
Reading a recent entry from her diary, she narrated: “The good news is I know who I want to be, who I’m meant to be. My biggest fear is I will never be her.”