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Appalachia's War: The poorest of the poor struggle back

First in a three part series

Sunday, November 26, 2000

By Diana Nelson Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writer
Photos by Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette Staff Photographer

An introduction: Appalachia, a rugged swath of America hugging the mountains from Georgia to New York, has for generations been the symbol of aching poverty in a land of wealth and opportunity.
But 35 years after President Johnson launched the War on Poverty from a simple porch in Appalachia, the region that claims part of Western Pennsylvania is climbing out of desperation.
Bordering cities of unprecedented growth and dot-com millionaires, Appalachia is finally outgrowing its image of shacks and bare feet.
On good roads, past Wal-Marts and in cozy bungalows, staff writer Diana Nelson Jones and photographer Steve Mellon visited the new Appalachia and uncovered a story of re-birth.

INEZ, Ky. -- Thirty-six years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson leapt over a gulleyful of water into Tommy Fletcher's yard along Route 3 in Inez, Ky. Photos show an entourage in the foreground of Fletcher's shack, where Johnson declared, "I have called for a national war on poverty. Our objective: total victory."

Gary Ball, left, a former coal miner who now edits a newspaper in Inez, Ky., speaks with a couple whose home in Beauty was the subject of a story in Ball's newspaper, the Mountain Citizen. Like many in the region, Ball's life is in economic transition. After a slump in the coal industry left him jobless, Ball moved on to new employment, albeit at a third of his old pay. Here he speaks with Linda Reed while husband Johnny listens from the doorway. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

The implication was clear: If this was war, Appalachia was ground zero, home to the poorest of the poor, the very definition of rural poverty. For nearly four decades, federal billions have poured into the region.

The results, as you might expect, have been mixed. Appalachia has struggled toward prosperity and in most places has come a very long way. In others, you can still look around and say, "What war?"

Four-lane crossroads sport national retail franchises, malls and hotels. Two-lane arteries pass tidy ranch houses and double-wide trailers lined in hollyhocks; pizza joints beside beauty shops beside tanning salons beside pretty white chapels; cinder-block stores that sell bait and pepper plants; cottage-like restaurants that specialize in hot dogs; and stands of pine that partially hide chalet-style subdivisions.

Even down its narrowest roads and through its quietest hamlets, shacks these days aren't common. Some roads remain unpaved and some wreak havoc on your shocks, but they're as likely to lead to a cozy log lodge in the woods as to a peeling trailer surrounded by contorted lawn furniture.

A majority of Appalachia is now middle class, and parts of the region are growing faster than the nation. Still, nothing has adequately replaced the loss of coal jobs, and the few urban areas are not large or vigorous enough to spawn much outward growth. The bulk of Appalachia remains small towns and hamlets where any job's a good job, there isn't much to do, and residents greet visitors warily, saying, "You musta got lost."

More in this report

Classes, health care wheeled into needy communities

Online graphic: Appalachia in 1960

Online graphic: Appalachia in 2000

Online graphic: Trends for the region, 1960-1990

Appalachia: definitions and measures of distress

Emma Fletcher and Gary Ball are moving ahead, if not necessarily up.

Planning for a more prosperous future



There do remain places President Johnson would recognize. You can still see Tommy Fletcher sitting on his front porch in Inez, the somewhat addled overlord of a slope littered with roosters and soda cans.

"His is a story of failure," says Herbie Smith, a Whitesburg, Ky. filmmaker. "There are plenty of those."

But stories of transition better characterize today's Appalachia.

The coal mines that paid Gary Ball $50,000 a year in the '70s became the mines that didn't need him in the '90s. "It would have been so much easier to go on welfare," he says now, working as an $18,000-a-year editor of the weekly Mountain Citizen in Inez, with two children in college.

Three days a week, Cuban-born pediatrician Isabel Pino sets up shop along rural roads across southwestern West Virginia. The blue van of the West Virginia Children's Health Project is the only doctor's office some rural children have ever known. "This van's wider than a lot of roads," Pino says.

Emma Fletcher -- no relation to Tommy -- is six years into moving off welfare after having fled an abusive marriage with a young child. Now, she is working full time and has just sent her daughter to college. Melanie, a 4.0 student, is the first in the family to attend. "'Better' is not going to just come along," Fletcher says. "You have to make better."

Money began arriving

On evening newscasts the night of President Johnson's visit, Appalachia suddenly found itself in the glare of a national spotlight. It showed a gangly swath of rugged land whose people resembled the politically underserved of a Third World country. Cameras roved over swayback porches, battered cars on cinder blocks, barefooted children, toothless men and polling places where dead people had been voting for years. (The 1960 West Virginia census counted 19,879 voting-age residents in Mingo County -- with 30,331 registered to vote.)

Many Appalachians cringed at the images that entered their living rooms and at the stark contrast between the illiterate isolates and snappy New York newsmen that fed the nation an enduring stereotype. The attention gave new meaning to the word "rural." The sweeping farmlands of the Midwest and picturesque hamlets of New England had a poor-cousin counterpart in Appalachia, where "rural" meant bad drinking water or decent system of waste disposal, no firehouse, no police, no hospital, no sidewalks, no entertainment.

On April 24, 1964, Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson visited Inez, Ky., and the property of Tommy Fletcher, a father of eight whose living conditions epitomized the squalor that characterized Appalachia for decades. It was from that porch that Johnson declared the nation's War on Poverty. (The Associated Press)

Washed-out bridges and rickety walking spans separated some communities from the nearest road. A web of trails, some just wide enough for opposing traffic, wound around hillsides like strewn Christmas ribbon. Geographically isolated for generations, even from one another, Appalachians first had to fight a pall over their spirit, a poverty of self-confidence and experience.

What roads there were brought hundreds of activists and volunteers into Appalachia in 1965, revealing dire conditions you can still see in some places, but not from the four-lane highways.

Money began arriving with passage of the Economic Opportunity Act in 1965, the same year Congress established Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and VISTA. The Appalachian Regional Commission was set up with a domain of 391 counties in 12 states. Mississippi, a non-Appalachian state, became the 13th in 1967. The regional commission now oversees federal development programs in 406 counties.

Although poverty activists complain the "war" didn't last more than five years, and many policy experts believe the war was lost, progress is indisputable.

One in three Appalachians was poor in 1965. The poverty rate now closely shadows that of the nation at about one in 14. The percentage of high school graduates doubled, to 68 percent, by 1990. The number of counties originally considered "distressed" -- 219 -- has been cut in half.

Yet despite the longest economic expansion in U.S. history during the 1990s, 111 Appalachian counties remain economically distressed -- one-fourth of the total.

Parts of Appalachia still rely on ruinous septic tanks and well water tainted by mining residue. Others have no garbage pick-up. Many small-town hospitals are closing as the health-care industry consolidates, requiring people to drive as far for health care as they did in the 1960s, before most small towns had clinics.

In Letcher County, Ky., where 80 percent of the people still have no public water, unemployment rates of 9 to 13 percent do not account for the many people who have stopped looking for jobs that don't exist. The county's judge executive, Carroll Smith, told ABC news last spring that Letcher's true unemployment rate may run as high as 50 percent.

Kathleen Blee, a University of Pittsburgh sociologist who collaborated on a recent study of Clay County, Ky., believes Clay's ruling families benefited most from money spent to fight the war on poverty. After a recent trip, she said, "To me, the poverty was staggering. I saw a woman holding a plastic milk carton against a rock to gather run-off."

'Hey, man, you're poor'

Distress blanketed Appalachia long before the regional commission first applied the word to two-thirds of its counties.

Tommy Fletcher still lives in the ramshackle frame house that President Lyndon Johnson visited in 1964 to launch the War on Poverty. At the time, Fletcher worked erratically as a timberman. Now in his 70s, Fletcher never found steady work and lives surrounded by chickens and pop cans. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Early in the 20th century, when companies came around bearing offers for mineral and surface rights, isolated residents had no way of knowing what was at stake. Hundreds of dollars looked like millions to them, so they signed on the dotted line. The outsiders took control of the two industries that came to dominate -- coal and timber -- and made hundreds of millions.

The early profiteers gave back in the manner of a lord to a serf. Many mine laborers lived in company-owned houses and earned scrip that could be used only in company-owned stores. Such arrangements survived well into the '60s.

Meanwhile, in nearly every coal town, little country schools slumped in need of paint and equipment, health clinics were few, and the enormous estate on the hill belonged to the coal operator.

Miners gained unions and lost them in skirmishes over decades. They were killed, harassed and evicted from company-owned houses. Not a few were charged with treason.

Coal miners have taken their lumps in spades, although miners today are among the best paid industrial workers. Nearly every mining family has a loss to report -- a father killed, a brother or sister crippled, a 50-year-old dying with black lung.

Then came the massive layoffs, as industries began to switch from Appalachia's bituminous coal to harder, cleaner-burning Western coal. Between 1950 and 1960, more than 640,000 Appalachians lost coal and agriculture jobs -- half the work force in these endeavors.

The coal business picked up in the 1970s, drawing some economic emigres back to the region, but since then the price of Appalachian coal has dropped to $20-25 per ton from $40, and the number of coal jobs has steadily declined.

One-fourth of the land that might be used for purposes other than coal or timber is flood-prone. Today, walls line rivers throughout the region. An $18 million flood wall fortresses little Matewan, W.Va., from the preternaturally abusive Tug River. But many Appalachians still live as if a river could rise at any time and buckle the floorboards.

Some Appalachians with improved lifestyles blame their own for a persistent image problem. Citing satellite dishes beside trashed-out trailers, they lament the entrenchment of a welfare class that has merely "upgraded" its poverty.

Herbie Smith, one of the first young filmmakers trained at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky., doesn't subscribe to this theory. He says the problem with the war on poverty is that it didn't effectively fight the real enemy -- corruption.

"The poor have not failed, they have been failed," he said. "It would be like if I took your money out of your pocket and then sniffed and said, 'Hey man, you're poor.' "

The issue of land ownership is near the heart of most discussions about poverty. A majority of McDowell County, W.Va., for instance, has been owned by coal and timber companies for decades, among them Georgia Pacific and Consol. The top two corporate owners today are coal companies that no longer mine in the county, but simply lease land.

In Tennessee, a citizens' group that organized in the '70s began digging into records to find out why there was no tax money for public health in a five-county area. Ten companies owned 35 percent of the land and 80 percent of the mineral rights, but paid no taxes on the minerals. State law requiring tax payments had not been enforced.

The fight against poverty in Appalachia also has been susceptible to the same recessions and policy decisions that beset the rest of the nation. Through the 1970s, all but 11 of West Virginia's 55 counties had pulled out of economic distress. Kentucky's Martin County, home of Inez, crawled out, too, as did three of its neighbors. By 1980, only 80 counties in all of Appalachia were registered as distressed. But federal funding reductions and a coal slump in the '80s blew more than 20 counties back into the hole.

Many counties lag because they were ignored in the first years of the war on poverty in favor of counties considered to have a better chance of success. The abject poor looked like sinkholes for investment. Many of the interior, rural counties received no funding until the 1980s. The fringe cities of Pittsburgh and Atlanta, early targets of commission funding, continued to be helped until 1994, when Jesse White was appointed head of the commission. He began shifting attention to the poorest counties.

A ferocity of pride

By its hilly nature, Appalachia is expensive to "fix."

A 11/2-mile stretch of U.S. 23 in eastern Kentucky that required massive rock excavation cost $47 million. By comparison, highways in flat, non-Appalachian western Kentucky run $2 million per mile.

The regional commission, which spends two-thirds of its budget on roads, has spent $5 billion toward a 3,000-mile system of highways that is nearly complete. The last 700 miles will cost more than the first 2,300, says commission spokesman Mike Kiernan. Inflation is a factor, but the main reason is that the hardest work comes last: "What remains is blowing through mountains."

Critics of the emphasis on roads say more of the money should have gone to feed the hungry, nurture education and create jobs. They say the main impetus for the vast network of stellar highways was to provide access for developers -- more outsiders who would take profits away.

The pro-roads argument is that without better roads -- and in some cases, roads, period -- no one would be able to get to places where they might invest or provide assistance.

Perhaps the most stubborn factor in Appalachia's slow assimilation has been its culture.

Johnson's lament that Appalachia had missed the U.S. economic bandwagon assumed that it was predisposed to jump on, that it was hobbled solely by need. But a sense of place had formed long before, like the mineral deposits deep in the folds of the mountains.

When the poverty warriors arrived, local people saw themselves reflected, most for the first time, in the eyes of people who saw something terribly wrong. Randy Sluss, a financial planner in Inez, said, "It was like being told, 'You ain't livin' right.' "

Federal programmers underestimated the ferocity of pride among Appalachians -- not pride in poverty but in a quality of life that outsiders failed to discern. Theirs is a culture of stories told over many lifetimes, stories that consult with the ladies in church or traipse through old mine sites where blackberries grow. They go over the gap from Big Branch into Lonesome, places where men say "honey" to their grown sons, and families sit down at the dinner table together, and neighbors still gather on the porch to play music in the evening.

To this day, many Appalachians don't lock their doors. While Wal-Marts and strip malls are gaining hold, many people believe their staunch "otherness" will save the region from being totally co-opted.

Federal bureaucrats in the '60s believed poverty was part of the culture, says Ron Eller, an Appalachian scholar at the University of Kentucky. A child-welfare activist in the late '60s in southern West Virginia, he is working on his second book about the region.

"Those in the field came away with a different assumption" than the bureaucrats. "The people we worked with had no political clout. Absentee corporations controlled their land. They did not have work. Knowing that, a lot of us started reading up on the histories of colonialism."

'People power'

Huey Perry was a high-school history teacher in Mingo County, W.Va., anticipating another summer selling cars in 1965 when he applied to run the county's new community-action program.

He got the job, and his experiences led him to write a book many cite as the best personal account of the war on poverty. In "They'll Cut Off Your Project," he described the beginnings of social change.

The early strategy was to let people build their own wagon and pull it themselves, he said. To prevent corruption, funds bypassed local politicians, who were infuriated. They labeled community volunteers "communists" to scare voters, but people by the hundreds turned out for night meetings in rural schools to meet the activists and talk about organizing politically, staging protests or starting businesses.

Today, Perry lives in Huntington, W.Va., where the Ohio River forms a tri-state fork with Kentucky and Ohio. He and his brother have converted a landmark building Downtown into apartments and offices.

"The early years was the real exciting time," he says. "From '65 to '70, we had a lot of autonomy with the poverty programs. We were constantly at war with the local politicians, trying to maintain the integrity of the program and create some kind of democracy. It was tiring on everyone but also one of the most exciting things I've ever done."

Mingo County residents established a restaurant in Williamson called the Lock Stock & Barrel that operated for 15 years until the building was destroyed by a flood in the '80s.

Several families started a grocery co-op in Baisden, motivated by soaring grocery prices. Eventually supported by 300 families, it sold groceries at just 10 percent above wholesale, and in spite of the ire of other grocers, charges of communism and threats to shut it down, the enterprise made the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite and was lauded by Sargent Shriver, then director of the Office of Economic Opportunity.

The co-op lasted four years.

In 1968, two disabled miners in Mingo County began researching state election laws, and people volunteered to check voter lists for faulty entries. Rumors spread that the miners were backed by communists. Perry and the miners received anonymous death threats. But lots of names were sloughed from the lists -- names of dead people, people who lived outside the state and people who had falsified their registrations.

Mingo County became a national model by developing the first full-day Head Start program. Despite a hue and cry from the county board of education, Perry's group employed 26 women who had been on welfare to run it.

"We weren't trying to teach the ABCs," Perry says. "We were trying to give them a social life and health benefits and hot meals for their kids and play time."

All 26 women went on to get college degrees.

Perry credits a group of VISTA volunteers, many college students who lived with area families during their service, for enabling miners afflicted with black lung to get benefits.

"These miners were dying, and no benefits were being made available to them," Perry said. "Once the miners were organized, coal operators and politicians saw they were too powerful a force not to be reckoned with."

Perry summed up the early years: "We had some small victories, and then there was a tendency to let down. In some ways, things look bleaker now. The only way you can really fight poverty is to give people the power, and no politicians are willing to take the risk."

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