InDebted: Barnwell — A love story
This story is part of the series InDebted — South Carolina Public Radio's deep dive into the ecosystem of debt in the Palmetto State.
I don't live where I'm from. There are many reasons for this.
So when a then-18-year-old named Jorell Banks told me and a room full of his friends that he was “afraid of dying here … broke, poor, and sickly,” I immediately knew what he meant.
There is something cosmically tragic in being afraid of the place you're from. When home is not home, it's something altogether more sinister; oppressive; consumptive.
And maybe if it had only been Jorell Banks saying what he was saying, one marvelously cool late-fall day in 2021, I might have chalked it up to one young man who'd had a bad experience growing up. But when he said it, every other head in the room, about a dozen of them, nodded in the way people nod when they agree with something so much that they have nothing more to add than their silent assent.
So, what's so wrong with this place — Barnwell County, and it's neighbors, Allendale and Bamberg, where all these young men and women agreeing with Banks are from — that its youth feels the need to flee the first chance it gets?
I can't possibly sum up the complexity of the answer to this in one short article, but I can tell you that it has a lot to do with timelessness. Which its own kind of dichotomy.
One the one hand, timelessness centers around traditions, families, and ways of life; on the other hand, timelessness means time has never moved on — and the faster the rest of the world gets, the further behind you fall if you stay still.
I can also tell you that a lot of the fear of a place like Barnwell County has to do with options. If you have them, this is an ideal place to live. It's green and quiet and lush here. The people are lovely and friendly and welcoming. And if you're looking to make your home far removed from urban sprawl, you'll definitely find plenty of options for that here.
If you don't have options, though, you start to worry that you might die here, where there is no significant industry, no institutions of higher education, no major medical centers, no rush to keep up with a world getting faster.
What the numbers say
This rural region of South Carolina, where the counties of Barnwell, Bamberg, Allendale, Orangeburg, Colleton, and Hampton meet, has some of the highest rates of poverty (each county over 20 percent) in the United States. All but Barnwell is considered a place of persistent poverty — meaning poverty rates at or above 20 percent, consistently for at least 30 years. Those are U.S. Census numbers, as tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
This area is also among the worst in the entire country when it comes to the share of residents living with debt in collections. Data from the Urban Institute place all these counties among the 100 worst rates of residents with debt in collections in the United States — although, South Carolina does have an unfortunate amount of representation from other areas of the state.
In fact, 16 of the nation’s 100 most debt-burdened counties (where data are measured) are in South Carolina; all of them are rural counties. They rank (among 3,059 counties) as follows:
- Allendale – 2nd worst in the nation**
- Marlboro – 4th worst in the nation**
- Lee – 8th worst in the nation*
- Marion – 10th worst in the nation*
- Dillion – 16th worst in the nation*
- Orangeburg – 31st worst in the nation*
- Hampton – 37th worst in the nation*
- Bamberg 42nd worst in the nation*
- Williamsburg – 62nd worst in the nation*
- Colleton – 68th worst in the nation*
- Union – 74th worst in the nation
- Chester – 78th worst in the nation
- Barnwell – 82nd worst in the nation
- Laurens – 85th worst in the nation
- Cherokee – 94th worst in the nation
- Chesterfield – 99th worst in the nation
- Counties with one * have overall debt-in-collections rates of at least 50 percent.
- Counties with two ** have overall debt-in-collections rates of at least 60 percent.
Blackville: A quick case study
Let’s drill down for a look at maybe the poorest city in Barnwell County — Blackville, the population of which is about 80 percent African American.
Data from MLS Tax Suite, provided to South Carolina Public Radio by Southern Realty of Barnwell in 2022, makes for stark reading:
A quarter of Blackville residents earn between $10,000 and $25,000 a year. Half make $35,000 or less.
Two thirds work in service or sales jobs, most in retail and fast food, the most abundant kinds of jobs in town. A third have no vehicle to get to a job they can’t walk to.
Forty-one percent of residents in Blackville have not even a high school diploma. Even fewer (about a third) own their own homes. Roughly a third of those who do own homes pay about half their household income to mortgages. A third of renters pay 70 percent towards rent.
For perspective, “housing burdened,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is when at least 30 percent of household income is paid to things like rent and living expenses. “Severe housing burden” kicks in at 50 percent.
The big picture question
Barnwell County’s poverty and debt issues are the story of rural America in the 2020s. As these communities continue to hollow out — as their residents flee to more developed areas, where opportunities for work are more plentiful — there are, increasingly, two sets of residents remaining: those who can afford to live elsewhere but choose to stay, and those who do not have the means to leave.
Barnwell County Councilman David Kenner and I first spoke in 2021 about the county's younger generation's desire to flee, as well as his own desire to see them come back some day with work or opportunities to build from the inside.
But this begs the question: How do you fix rural communities’ problems, how do you keep them from hollowing out, and preserve what makes these communities what they are?
It’s not a question with an easy answer, if there is even an answer at all. And at the moment, we might only have to work with what Kenner tries to impart on the young people he meets in his part of the state.
“Go off and be all you can be,” he says. “But please, ma’am, please, sir, do not forget home.”