Martin and Georgia West have been married 41 years and live in their native county of McDowell, in southern West Virginia. Martin West, 62, has worked in the mining industry, been the county magistrate and now serves as the county’s sheriff and treasurer. He’s also the pastor at the Pentecostal church in Raysal, the Old Country Church. Georgia West, 60, is the vice president of the county board of education and teaches Sunday school. She’s been active throughout her career working for legal aid groups and others serving the community. The two work together to distribute sleeping bags for the poor through the sheriffs department program called “Warm for the Winter”.
When Georgia West was five-years-old her family drew national attention when her parents, Chloe and Alderson Muncy, were the first in the nation to receive food stamps in a then pilot program from President John F. Kennedy in 1961. Today, McDowell has even less opportunity than 50 years ago according to Georgia West. It is still among the poorest counties in the nation.
McDowell County is known for coal and for poverty. The Wests see the solutions as complex and beyond coal and cite the need for better roads to attract business and bring factories to mountains flattened from coal removal.
Both voted for Donald Trump and support his work in the first weeks in office.
Attracted to what she calls “plain talk,” Georgia West describes herself as an early Trump supporter. She agrees with his choice of recently confirmed Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, but she’s quick to point out that others disagree with her and she’s not speaking for the Board of Education in McDowell County.
Georgia West on charter schools: The thing is they say it’s taking away from our public education and it will take money from public education. But, it’s not what’s best for me. I’m looking at what is best for the students and that is the focus of a board member.
What is best for the students? It is a choice. Are we going to tell parents they have no choice on how to educate their children? You can’t do that.
My philosophy is we have choices on who we marry, where we live, what jobs we want to do. We can make choices as women whether or not we choose to have a child. That’s the law. So once a child is born we want to take away whether or not they have a choice for education?
Georgia West remembers the publicity of being the first family on Food Stamps and also believes her family had more opportunity at that time than many do now.
Georgia West: Looking back, it was not that we got Food Stamps. It was a help. It was the publicity — the arrogant things people would say about my mom having kids. That was the horror part of it.
‘Why are you popping out babies?’ She would get these letters, she had them in a box, and I read them when I was older. I remember they really wanted to come and adopt some of the kids. ‘We’ll take this one or that one.’ And I was, like, ‘you actually got this type of mail that they thought you were going to give us away like little puppies?’ I thought it was degrading and that they were using us as a publicity stunt.
The spotlight has remained on the family. West still remembers a call she had from a reporter when she was a young adult.
Georgia West: They called me and they wanted me to talk. I said, ‘My family worked for a living. And if you want to make a good story, I will tell you the success story, but I’m not going to say we’re all laying around on welfare and we never went to school, we didn’t graduate and we never worked.’
I said, ‘I have teeth,’ because you know they always like to show people without teeth. I never got a call back from them.
It was like some curse. I never really remembered what a food stamp looked like. It was only for a couple of years that we actually got it. We didn’t get them all our life. It was just for those couple of years when my father was laid off that we actually got food stamps.
I don’t see it as a curse now. It’s a great program. People can put it down, but families need to eat. These kids need to eat. Our students need to eat. That is something that is America – we help each other. That’s why I’m not embarrassed to say my family was the first. I can say they weren’t the last.
Martin West, a life long democrat, voted for Donald Trump: I was elected as a Democrat. But Democrats have done nothing to better our country. I’m excited about Donald Trump. He may not be able to do everything, but I believe that he’ll work on it.
He’s fulfilled a lot of it within two weeks and leading up to his inauguration. So that is an indication of what he’s going to do, we look forward to bigger and better things happening for the state of West Virginia and our county in particular.
Because the politicians and leaders of old never looked ahead to diversify when coal was king, we are in the condition we’re in today. When the mines shut down the whole county shut down. So now we’re struggling and trying to get our feet back on the ground.
Coal is coming back, but it’s going to be the smaller mines and hopefully they’ll be able to work with what Donald Trump promised and the man that he appointed over the EPA. It’s going to do away with a lot of these regulations that’s stopped and hindered the ability to mine coal in West Virginia.
Sheriff West agreed with Trump’s recent executive order banning people from seven majority-Muslim nations, though he did say that it would have been better if discussed more in advance of signing:
Martin West: He’s not against Muslims per se, but he’s against the countries where a lot of the Muslims are coming from that they’ve got terrorists ties. There are Muslims in every state, every county — some of them have been beneficial to what they’ve done in their vocational training or degrees that they have. Most of the doctors we go to are Muslim. My doctor is Muslim.
Martin West also agrees with Trump’s assessment of the national media, and points to the problems he sees:
Martin West: The country is so divided you got the left and the right. I don’t know how we’re going to stand because the house divided cannot stand.
But I don’t believe that it was Democrat or Republican that won this election. I believe God intervened because the Christian people prayed.
He’s not the best spokesman with his language and things. Even now I’m praying that God would get a hold of him and mellow him down.
Justin Hayhurst contributed to this report.
In ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ Nancy Andrews presents photographs depicting the diversity of voices across Appalachia. These portraits strive to show the varied faces, passions, issues and opinions from around the region. These interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity. If you have an idea for ‘100 Days, 100 Voices’ please contact Nancy Andrews on Twitter @NancyAndrews or email at nancy.andrews [at] mail.wvu.edu.