Poverty has been an unending epidemic in the United States, especially in the southeastern region culturally known as Appalachia. Coal mining and logging were the main sources of employment in the early 20th century but those jobs were not immune from effects of the Great Depression. In order to combat poverty, create jobs and improve conditions, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal brought programs to the area that devised better farming methods, supplied running water and built dams to provide electricity. Those government programs helped but by the early 1960s, the Appalachian mining region of eastern Kentucky had a poverty rate higher than 60 percent.
President Lyndon Johnson issued his “unconditional war on poverty” as he addressed the United States Congress 50 years ago, Jan. 8, 1964. When he visited Martin County, Kentucky, to kick-off this program, the entire nation saw a side of America that had not kept pace with society. Instead, the public was introduced to shacks without electricity, dirt roads and little or no medical care. It was a wake-up call that not everyone was living the American dream.
People have different ways of breaking the cycle of poverty. In Martin County, coal mines have continued to be a source of jobs but many have shut down. Residents, especially college age men and women, say the only way to earn a living is to leave. The poverty rate has dropped to 35 percent but that is more than double the national average.
Others choose to stay and promote change. One of them, Eula Hall, lives in Floyd County. She accomplished many things with her eighth grade education by learning and working with community organizers. Senator Ted Kennedy came to visit and Hall accompanied him on his tour of the area. One big problem was the bacterial contamination in 90 percent of the wells. Federal funds received in the late 1960s were used to have clean running water piped from a nearby treatment plant.
The struggle for good medical care is documented in her biography, Mud Creek Medicine. Hall writes about when she was growing up, the nearest doctor was 50 miles away. In the early 1970s, she used federal grants and private funding to build a medical facility. It was, and continues to be, the only clinic in the area. Over 7,000 patients annually make use of the clinic’s own doctors, X-ray machines and pharmacy.
On the 50th anniversary of Johnson’s speech declaring a “war on poverty,” the White House announced that eight counties in eastern Kentucky have been designated for federal money through a program established a year ago. The Promise Zone was created under President Barack Obama so that regions facing chronic poverty can apply federal funds to “build new ladders of opportunity” in areas such as education, housing and job training. This plan will make $1.3 million available for college and career-readiness high school programs, small businesses and job training. Governor Steve Beshear said this would have “an accelerated positive impact” on Appalachia’s future.
Poverty throughout the region continues to be higher than the national average. Its consequences are both visible and psychological. A lot has been accomplished over the past 50 years but the unending epidemic still exists. The main source of income for decades has been working in the coal mines. Programs are focusing on opportunities to make a positive difference for the future for Appalachia.
By: Cynthia Collins