War on Poverty 50 Years Later

The news has been abuzz this week about the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and our little corner of the world is getting more attention than it usually does. Since the War on Poverty was launched from Martin County, Ky., national media outlets rushed to Inez to take another look and see how the region has fared in the past five decades. Of course, the typical photos of ramshackle homes and tired cliches of “poor, but proud” and “isolated and remote” are resurfacing. Some of the reporting is decent, like this piece from CBS News on health care crusader Eula Hall, and some of it is horrible; but as usual, little attention has been paid to the diversity of Appalachian culture, lifestyle and livelihoods.

Top: The War on Poverty was launched 50 years ago from this front porch in Martin County, KY. Bottom: Today, young people gather at the Treehouse Cafe & Bakery in Hazard, KY.

Some pundits are using persistent poverty in places like Appalachia as evidence that the War on Poverty has failed to do much other than waste government dollars. But a recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research refutes that idea, as reported by the Daily Yonder:

The study found that throughout the 45-year period that researchers considered, “government policies have significantly reduced the share of the population in poverty, and the share in deep poverty,” defined as living with an income less than half of the poverty threshold.

Without the government programs, the researchers say, the poverty rate would have climbed from 25% in 1967 to 31% in 2012. Instead, the poverty rate fell from 19% to 16% during the same period.

The net effect, according to the study, is that government programs resulted in a poverty rate 15 percentage points lower in 2012 than it would have been without the programs.

But poverty is still high, and the national narrative doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know: that while progress has been made, our region still faces significant problems. NPR reported on the challenges young people are facing trying to find work in the region after graduation, which highlights many of the region’s issues: lack of economic diversity, few opportunities, low educational attainment.

Sitting in the stands of the high school football field beneath one of those mountains, not far from where Johnson visited in 1964, Kirk says he knows things are a lot better here than they were back then.

“You know, paved roads, everyone’s got a car, there’s a half of a McDonald’s right there,” he says. He points to a nearby gas station.

Still, he says, “There’s not really any opportunities for college grads back here — unless you make your own. It’s really hard to do that if you’re a financial analyst.”

Michelle Harless, a guidance counselor at the local high school, says she sees the best and the brightest leave Martin County.

“I would say one of our biggest exports is bright young minds,” she says.

While this is certainly true in some regards, it’s not always, and to some “best and brightest” young people who are returning home or never leaving, this statement sends a clear message that outside reporters are refusing to see the trees for the forest in favor of more page views. If the reporter had traveled down Route 119 to Whitesburg, she may have been able to put a little optimism in her piece, especially if she had talked with Amelia Kirby, co-owner of local café/bar Summit City, the young filmmakers at the Appalachian Media Institute at Appalshop, or the radio DJs at WMMT-FM.

There are places in Central Appalachia that are remaking themselves as young people commit to their hometowns. Young people like Jenn Noble of Hazard, who said at the SOAR Summit that “my community needed me more than New York.” She came home to start the Treehouse Café and Bakery, which has quickly become a local staple that provides space for local musicians and poets to perform.

Earlier this week, several counties in Southeast Kentucky were designated a federal “Promise Zone.” The region will receive priority for federal funding for economic diversification, housing, workforce development, education and other projects. While it’s certainly not the large-scale investment we need, it’s a very positive step, and we expect to see many more young people reinvest in the region through this program.

There are bright spots all across Central Appalachia, and they are quickly growing. We report on them in this blog all the time. National reporters could easily find them, and they could have easily focused on them during this 50th anniversary week as an example of how far we’ve come and a statement about the bright future we’re aiming toward. It’s just a whole lot easier for them to rehash hackneyed stereotypes instead.

Those reporters who relied heavily on the negatives are right about one thing: 50 years after the War on Poverty, we still have a ways to go. But whatever the national media might believe about Appalachia, and despite its best efforts to keep us in its “backward and hopeless” box, we know we are more than up to the task.

Thanks to Jenn Noble for the photo of the Treehouse Cafe and Bakery!