Fighting the Good Fight Against Rural Poverty

When I heard about a project being spear-headed by the American Federation of Teachers to pull together a partnership of public and non-profit entities to use schools as the fulcrum to turn around entrenched poverty in McDowell County, West Virginia, I thought of those iconic images of John and Bobby Kennedy campaigning in Coal Country in 1960, visibly shocked by the horrible conditions he saw. As a matter of fact, that exposure is widely credited for inspiring the Kennedy Administration’s championship of the food stamp program. But while people in Appalachian West Virginia still rely on federal food assistance, economic conditions have if anything deteriorated–not because people don’t want to work, but because the jobs have left and the simple habit of working is now being lost.

The New York Times‘ Trip Gabriel had a grim assessment of the situation in an article published last April, amidst commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the beginning of LBJ’s War on Poverty:

McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, has been emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century. John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960 and was so appalled that he promised to send help if elected president. His first executive order created the modern food stamp program, whose first recipients were McDowell County residents. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared “unconditional war on poverty” in 1964, it was the squalor of Appalachia he had in mind. The federal programs that followed — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living.

But a half-century later, with the poverty rate again on the rise, hardship seems merely to have taken on a new face in McDowell County. The economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment….

Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States — defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades — 85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white, which has supplied some of America’s iconic imagery of rural poverty since the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans.

McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.

I’m reasonably familiar with rural and small-town poverty, partly from growing up in some struggling textile towns, and partly from working on rural development issues during a stint with the Georgia Department of Community Affairs. In this latter capacity we divided the state’s 159 counties into three “tiers”–the first had all the ingredients for economic success, with some help and luck; the second had the potential for success with some key infrastructure improvements. And then there was the third tier, counties with little or no private employment, no access to markets, terrible educational and health care facilities, and a growing pattern of intergenerational poverty. More than a few were characterized by an absentee landlord class that grudgingly paid property taxes to maintain the population at bare substance levels via local government jobs and public assistance. Any kid who did well enough to go off to college typically decided to leave for good.

And “leave” has been pretty much the message sent to people in places like McDowell County, particularly by those who would begrudge them any kind of taxpayer-financed help. You don’t have to be terribly nostalgic, however, to recognize a bond between the people and the land in places like this that cannot be measured by statistics or regulated by markets. One of McDowell’s problems is a dire shortage of rental housing–it’s a big problem in recruiting teachers to the county. Why is there a shortage? Part of it is the inveterate determination of mountain folk, even those in poverty, to be landowners; they’ll inherit or buy a small plot of land and put a cheap trailer home on it before even thinking about renting a place to live.

In any event, I’m glad someone has decided to try a coordinated approach to addressing McDowell’s problems rather than just abandoning the place to the wolves of adversity. If you have fourteen minutes, please watch this video prepared in conjunction with the “Reconnecting McDowell” Project, and see if like the Kennedys, you come away with more compassion than disdain for these people.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.