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Disabled and scraping by in the underground economy

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 10/6/2017 Terrence McCoy

Bobby Dempsey washes roots in a creek behind his trailer. He and his sister Donna Jean sell the various roots they gather for cash to help make ends meet.

Bobby Dempsey washes roots in a creek behind his trailer. He and his sister Donna Jean sell the various roots they gather for cash to help make ends meet.
© Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post

Researchers know some people receiving disability benefits are forced to work illegally because they can’t hold a regular job, because no one will hire them, because disability payments on average amount to less than minimum wage — and because it’s hard to live on so little.

For the people of the hollow, opportunity begins where the road ends, and that was where they now went, driving onto a dirt path that vanished into forest. It was here that they came at the end of the month, when the disability checks were long gone, and the next were still days away, and the only option left was also one of the worst.

The goal was simple. Get to the top of the mountain. Collect as many wild roots as possible to sell to a local buyer. Avoid the copperheads and rattlesnakes. Descend before the rains came again and flooded their way out.

“My doctor gets on me all the time getting out here and doing stuff like this,” said Donna Jean Dempsey, 51, who had quintuple bypass surgery in 2011, as she gripped the passenger-side handle inside the truck. But what alternative was there? Her $735 disability check was the only steady money she and her brother Bobby Dempsey, who was driving, had coming in, and it was never enough. She didn’t have running water. She didn’t have furniture. For seven days in a row, she had worn the same gray flannel shirt and ripped jeans, muddy from the mountains.

“You can’t just sit still,” she told Bobby, 52.

“You got to keep going,” he replied.

And where they were going was deep into the underground American economy, where researchers know some people receiving disability benefits are forced to work illegally after the checks are spent — because they can’t hold a regular job, because no one will hire them, because disability payments on average amount to less than minimum wage, sometimes much less, and because it’s hard to live on so little.

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The underground economy has long been a part of rural America, but it has become vital in counties such as this one, deprived of the once-dominant coal industry and redefined by a decades-long swell in the nation’s disability rolls that has left more than 1 in 5 working-age residents in Logan County on Social Security Disability Insurance, which serves disabled workers, or Supplemental Security Income for the disabled poor.

Some who enter this realm assume one risk — working illegally — to avoid others. Every reported dollar beyond a small amount can result in a reduced disability check or, worse, no check at all. The government awards benefits with the understanding that recipients can work only very little, or not at all, and that reporting too much in earnings can lead to being cut off.

“There is this theme of people being crooks, but it’s genuinely people trying to find a way to patch together a living when they have very little income,” said Mil Duncan, one of the nation’s leading rural sociologists. “It’s not a moral issue. It’s a getting-by issue.”

In West Virginia, getting by means digging roots in the mountains. Brent Bailey, a former assistant research professor at West Virginia University who has studied the root trade, calls it a “social safety net” that people relied on when “Plan A fell apart.” “Most of this is Plan B,” he said, “after you’ve lost your job or your disability check has dried up.”

Related video: Meet residents of rural America who fear they’re being forgotten


For Donna Jean, who watched Bobby steer his truck above the forest canopy and through low-hanging mist, it was time again for Plan B.

“We’ll park right here and see what we can find,” Bobby said, pulling over beside a fallen tree and killing the engine.

Donna Jean stepped out and looked up. Dark clouds were moving in from a nearby mountain. She lit a home-rolled cigarette and, getting to work with a mattock, tried to ignore the weather. She had lately been telling herself that she had to stop taking these risks. They were more than an hour from the nearest hospital, and what if she had another heart attack? What if Bobby, allergic to bees, accidentally dug into a buried nest? And if a snake bit one of them — the month before, Bobby had killed a copperhead as it prepared to strike — could they get to help in time?

She brought down the mattock and came up with a palm-size root the dirty white of ivory.

“Find anything?” called Bobby, a tall, angular man with hardened features, some distance up the path.

“Solomon’s seal root,” she yelled, leaning into a hillside beside a scattering of surface coal. She dug out more, along with some bloodroot and “I have no idea what these are, but I’ll take them.” She took them all, hoping that a small pile of roots would turn into a big pile and that a big pile would turn into enough money to buy milk, bread and laundry detergent, only stopping when a siren sounded.

“Flash flooding,” she said.

She glanced down at the ravine, then up at the clouds. They were darker than before. She wanted off this mountain. But her next disability check was three days away, and she didn’t have enough roots, not nearly enough, so down the mattock went again.

Five miles below, in the hollow of Mallory, is a thin road lined with junk cars and mobile homes, several of which belong to Dempsey family members, who have lived here longer than nearly anyone, through everything that has happened. Seven of the 13 children died. The family house burned down. And Donna Jean, the eighth child, underwent one misfortune after another: rape survivor at 12, mother and illiterate dropout at 13, and, after years in special education, disability beneficiary at 22, the exact reason for which she can’t recall but summarizes as, “I’m not that smart, buddy. Kids made fun of me.”

Home eventually became a shed the size of a one-car garage that her rental company describes as a “lofted playhouse,” where she has placed two mattresses, a hot plate for cooking and an unconnected toilet. If she ever got enough money, she’d like to hook it up to a sewer line so she could stop using Bobby’s bathroom, in the trailer across the road, although she doubts that will happen anytime soon. Every month, half of her Supplemental Security Income payment immediately disappears: $304.17 to Lokey Rentals & Sales for her house, $50 to Appalachian Power, $20 to the Dollar Store for minutes on a phone with a cracked screen that she rarely uses. And the other half soon follows, on gasoline, on whatever her $190 worth of food stamps doesn’t cover, on helping Bobby when he needs it.

There was no helping anyone at the moment, two days before the first of the month, as Donna Jean, Bobby and his wife, Linda, watched people roar up and down the hollow on four-wheelers and smoked every home-rolled cigarette to the filter.

“I ain’t got nothing,” Donna Jean told them.

“We’re in the same boat,” Bobby said.

“We’re in a worser boat,” Linda corrected him. “We don’t have nothing coming in.”

“Other than what we go out and earn in the mountain,” Donna Jean said, without apparent bitterness, because, for her, that was how it had always been. After social services discovered her extreme poverty, she said, and took away her three children, whom she now rarely sees, she went to work in the underground economy. She had always been strong — “like a man,” one friend said — and cutting grass or digging ditches or root hunting, which she’d learned as a child, became as much about distracting herself from all that she had lost as subsidizing her disability check. There were mornings she would get to thinking about the children she didn’t know, or the husband who had died, and whose ring she still wore, and conclude that the only way to feel better was to do something useful.

Some months, that usefulness has brought in less than $50, others as much as $200. But she never felt bad about concealing what she earned while on disability. She believed she had made it honestly — never stealing, like some, never selling drugs, like others, but by turning nothing into something, which was how she viewed the contents of her knapsack spilling onto the ground before Bobby and Linda.

Out came 12 white roots.

And eight red roots.

And a bundle that smelled like root beer.

Bobby leaned in for a look.

“Ain’t much,” he said.

He picked at his fingernails, dirty from the day before.

This wasn’t supposed to be his life, he had been thinking lately. He wasn’t supposed to be the one asking people for help, but help is what he needed these days, since the coal industry had capsized and his hours working security outside a mine had shrunk to nothing. Then Linda’s disability check, for depression and anxiety, was cut off in 2015 when they temporarily moved and the government counted the trailer they left behind as a sellable asset. They tried to get the check back, each action more desperate than the last. They told the government that the trailer was all they had. They took her name off the deed. They divorced. But nothing restored the lost income, so in early June, still unable to find a job and having returned to the hollow, Bobby went into the mountains with Donna Jean.

“It breaks my heart,” Linda said, looking at the roots. “It breaks my heart to see you have to go out and work that hard just to make a little bit of money.”

“You got to try to do what you got to do,” Bobby said.

Donna Jean turned the knapsack upside down to make sure every one was accounted for.

“That’s all I got. That’s it right there,” she said. “Ain’t going to make that much out of it.”

“We might,” Bobby said, remembering the additional roots he had at his trailer. “Between what I got there and the little bit here.”

“Well,” she said after a moment. “Take it to Tommy’s.”

She didn’t need to use his last name. Everyone in the hollow knew Tommy Vance.

“Hey, buddy,” said the first customer of the day, the day before the disability checks were due to arrive.

“You made it back,” said Tommy Vance, 52.

It was 10 minutes after opening for Vance Recycling & Root Co., one of the largest root purchasers in West Virginia, a sweeping expanse along Huff Creek strewn with metal compactors, Bobcats and giant furnaces to dry out herbs and roots. Vance wasn’t surprised to see Frank Douglas Brown. He had known Brown all his life, back when Brown was “a monster,” standing 6-foot-4, not the man he saw now, stooped beside 12 bags of cans, bald from chemotherapy, spine twisted by scoliosis.

“Beautiful day, ain’t it?” said Brown, 54, who receives $733 a month in disability.

“Yeah,” Vance said, watching as the cans went from Brown’s truck to a conveyor belt to a compressor that crushes every 25,600 cans into one 800-pound cube, finally turning into $152.19 in cash.

“Thanks, man,” Brown said, barely counting the money, and off he went in his red pickup.

Vance walked back into his store office, passing two signs that laid out his rules for doing business.

“We are NOT allowed to buy the following items: street light poles or fixtures, road or bridge guard rails . . . traffic light signals . . . cemetery markers or vases . . . fire hydrant.”

“We Reserve the right to *REFUSE* service to anyone!”

The signs were important, especially on days like today, when people all over Mingo, Wyoming, Lincoln and Logan counties were out of money and desperate for something to stretch them to the first of the month, when the cycle, as Vance sees it, begins anew. There’s a rush at the Walmarts, Dollar Generals and Dollar Stores. Streets clog with cars. Smoke rises from barbecues along country roads and mountain hollows. Then comes the lean middle of the month and, finally, the end, when the money is all gone — because who can live on less than minimum wage, or one check may support many, or there was an emergency, a kid’s birthday, Christmas. And when that happens, they come to buyers such as Vance who dry and resell the roots to processors, which pulverize and resell them to natural-supplement manufacturers, which resell them as herbal products to retailers, which market them to health-conscious consumers.

After seeing his father start a side business buying ginseng, a northeastern root particularly popular in China, where it’s used in medicine and tea, Vance opened his own business two decades ago. It was a time when coal mines were laying off workers, an opioid epidemic was sparking, and the number of people receiving disability benefits was climbing. He quickly realized that their losses drove his gains, and last year, he said, his root purchases pumped more than $1 million into the community, the majority of it coming in the second half of the month.

But even in a business that profits off desperation, he never knew how desperate things could become, such as last year when a disabled man tried to sell Vance his prosthetic titanium leg and, after Vance declined, pawned it. Or when another man drove to Vance’s, took out a jack, removed his car’s tires, sold the rims for scrap metal and left atop four “donut” spare tires, $35 richer. That anyone would do so much for so little has taught him empathy, empathy he sometimes sees others struggling with.

“I think it’s a joke,” his cousin, Nathan Vance, who applied for disability earlier this year, told him one night after seeing a man on disability sell Vance a bundle of roots for $12.50. “People I know of run the mountains all the time. . . . And yet they’re on SSI. Beating the system.”

“A lot of them is not capable, mentally, to handle it,” Tommy Vance said of holding a regular job. “Physically, they’re probably all right, some of them, but now some of them is not physically all right, you know what I’m saying?”

“Some of them are not mentally able,” the cousin said. “My dad was one of them. Nerve problems.”

“I’ve got a little bit of nervous problem,” Vance said.

“I worked underground until I started having anxiety and I couldn’t stand to go back underground,” the cousin said.

“Can you imagine living on $700 a month?”

“I can’t,” said the cousin, who stood to receive $2,080 per month if his application was approved.

“And pay rent, pay utilities. How do you survive? You have to do something else to survive.”

Three days later, the last day of the month, a day Vance would pay out $3,627.04 in cash over 64 purchases, a disabled man named Ron Brickles, 48, had that “something else” on his mind when he arrived at Vance’s: “I’m in the mountains seven days a week, and if I ain’t, bubba, hell, my kids ain’t going to have clothes on their back.” So did a disabled man named Johnny Adkins, 58: “Anything better than nothing.”

And so did Donna Jean.

It had been a bad night. Her brother-in-law’s dog, caged outside his trailer nearby, had barked the entire length of it. Donna Jean got out of bed, angry. It was the worst day of the month, and soon she was pulling on the same ripped jeans and soiled flannel for the ninth day in a row. She put on her glasses, walked outside past the shower she kept in case she got running water and crossed the street to see if Bobby was awake yet.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” he asked.

“I guess we’ll drink that and go ahead and take that stuff over there to Tommy’s,” she said.

“Ain’t got much,” he said.

“Well,” she sighed irritably, “I tried to get you to go [digging] yesterday, and you wouldn’t go.”

“I was beat,” he said. “Yesterday was my rest day.”

“My rest day will be when I’m six foot in the ground.”

She looked at the trailer belonging to Kenneth, her brother-in-law, owner of the barking dog, and shook her head.

“Bark, bark, bark,” she said. “Day in and day out.”

“I block that stuff right out of my mind,” he said.

Donna Jean wished she could, as she wished she could block out so many other things. Her parents had warned her that life wouldn’t be easy. There would be times she wouldn’t have enough money. But she hadn’t thought that would be her entire life, that she would be 51 and living like this still, some days fantasizing about an amount of money that would barely register with many people but would mean everything to her. Five hundred dollars. What would she do if she found some Virginia snakeroot — rare, fragile and worth $120 per pound — and made $500? What would she buy? There would be a bed. A real one. Not just a mattress on the floor. And a cabinet, too, something small. But instead, she slept where she slept, she had what she had, and that dog wouldn’t stop barking.

“Why don’t you do something about that barking-ass dog down there?” she yelled at Kenneth when he came by. “I’m going to turn it loose!”

“If I catch you on that property — ” Kenneth began.

“Kenneth, get out of my face!” she said. “Bobby and them might take it from you, but I don’t.”

“Hey!” Bobby, sitting on the porch in a camping chair, told Donna Jean. “Keep your mouth shut.”

“I’m tired,” she said. “Every day, every day, every day. I can’t sit on my porch or nothing else.”

“This is not going to be here,” Bobby said. “Zip it.”

“I’ve got health problems,” she said. “What’s he got?”

“I’ve got health problems, too,” said Kenneth, who spent years on disability before the government cut off his benefits.

“My wife’s got health problems, too,” Bobby said. “Go home. Go home and zip it.”

But home was more of the same, so she walked the hollow, trying to calm down. She went past the house belonging to her brother Donald, a former janitor, who received disability for kidney failure. He lived in a home filled with plush furniture, food and paintings showing Jesus and would sometimes allow Donna Jean to use his outdoor hose for water. Next came the house of her nephew Donald Jr., with its trucks and a boat parked outside, purchased with a mining electrician’s salary of $100,000. She walked until she could see the end of the road, where it turned to dirt, and then, feeling better, returned to her shed. She smoked a cigarette, pet her dogs, washed her roots in a tin basin and, after placing them into a small bag, crossed the street back to Bobby’s.

She and Bobby were quiet as they drove the half-mile to Vance’s with their roots, with barely enough gas to get there. They walked in, and Donna Jean looked at the dry-erase board. It showed the value of the mountain roots. Solomon’s seal and bloodroot were 90 cents per pound. Ninebark, which Bobby had picked, was even less: 70 cents per pound.

The transaction took less than five minutes, and then they were driving home again.

“Kristy said she brought one bag of cans in,” Donna Jean said of a friend who had been denied disability benefits and walked the roads looking for anything to sell. “She didn’t get but $3.”

Bobby didn’t respond, pulling back into the hollow.

“Are we going to go get gas or what?” Donna Jean said.

Bobby shook his head.

“Or something?”

Bobby didn’t respond. He pulled up outside his trailer. Linda was on the porch, drinking a soda.

Donna Jean walked toward her with the sales receipt in her pocket. It said the Solomon’s seal root she had found five miles above had weighed 0.53 pounds and was worth 48 cents. The bloodroot she had wrenched from the ground, hauled to her shed and scrubbed clean of dirt — that came in at 0.35 pounds and made her 32 cents. The receipt said nothing at all about the other type of root she had taken in because that had been how much it was worth.

Donna Jean sat down slowly. “I made 80 cents,” she said flatly.

Linda looked at Bobby and saw it in his face. She didn’t ask him how much he had made. And he didn’t tell her it was only $8.32.

He stared across the road and picked at the dirt under his fingernails.

“Bobby?” Donna Jean asked.

It was noon on the last day of the month.

“What are you going to do?”

There were 12 more hours to go.

“It’s hard to tell what I’m going to do,” he said, and he went back to his fingernails.

Twelve hours later: Two McDonald’s employees smoked outside the back entrance and watched the Logan Bank & Trust parking lot, waiting for it to fill with people coming to withdraw cash from this month’s disability checks. “Look, that whole lot will be full of cars,” said one man wearing a baseball cap. “Ain’t no joke,” said the other, smoking an electronic cigarette. “Like they’re waiting for a concert or something,” the one in the cap said.

An hour after that: Cars began lining up at the bank’s ATM, first three, then six, then eight, a progression that would keep steady most of the night and well into the morning.

Six hours after that: Donna Jean walked three miles to the pharmacy in Man. A guy in a truck pulled up beside her and gave her two big trash bags of cans, which she hid behind a tractor trailer. She next withdrew $400 from her bank account for bills, went to the already-crowded Dollar Store and Dollar General and bought dog food, dog treats, Slim Jims, three six-packs of Milwaukee’s Best, pruners for digging roots and a backpack to carry it all. She retrieved her cans, relieved that no one had taken them while she shopped, and went home.

An hour after that: She sat outside her shed, and here came the best moment of the month.

She lit a cigarette, stretched out her legs and opened a beer. The hollow was still quiet, and she felt at peace, now that the bills were paid and the shopping was done. She usually spent all of her disability check within days of the first — even that which wasn’t reserved for bills — not because of how much she received, but because of how little. What was the point in saving when, even if she could scrape together every free dollar, it would never be enough to change her life? So she bought the beer she had looked forward to, enjoyed its release and, as she did now, carried it over to Bobby’s.

“There was a guy who gave me two big bags of cans,” she excitedly told him, taking a seat on the porch.

He sighed.

“There’s no money in that stuff,” he said.

“Big bags,” she said.

“No money in it,” he repeated. “I mean, it’s like us. That roots and stuff. All you get is gas money.”

This time, it was Donna Jean who didn’t say anything.

She looked down at her beer and thumbed its lid. She took a sip. The moment could last a while longer, she decided. She knew that the first of the month would soon be gone, and with it, the money and beer, and that the only option left would lie at the end of the hollow and the top of the mountain.


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