BEREA — The War on Poverty’s 50th anniversary has reignited debate about its effect on places such as Eastern Kentucky, where President Lyndon B. Johnson famously came to launch the “war” from a Martin County laborer’s front porch.
Like the real wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, it is easy to declare the War on Poverty a costly failure. America still has plenty of poor people. Eastern Kentucky continues to lag the nation in education, health care and job prospects beyond a boom-and-bust coal industry where little of the wealth ever trickles down.
Declaring failure is easy, but it isn’t accurate. The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study that estimated without the government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012.
Eastern Kentucky is significantly better off than it was a half-century ago, thanks largely to government-funded infrastructure and assistance. But the question remains: Why wasn’t the War on Poverty more successful?
I recently posed the question to two aging veterans of that war. Their observations offer food for thought as Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers ramp up their Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative, the latest in a long series of efforts to “fix” Eastern Kentucky’s economy.
Robert Shaffer, 84, is retired in Berea. In 1963, he accompanied his father to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and was inspired to public service by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech.
The next year, after the Economic Opportunity Act was passed, Shaffer began working with poor people in new community action agencies in his native New Jersey. He was recruited to Washington, but wanted to work on the front lines instead. After reading Harry Caudill’s book,Night Comes to the Cumberlands, he told federal officials, “I’ll take the job if you’ll send me to Kentucky.”
Hollis West, 83, is retired in Lexington. A coal miner’s son from southern Illinois, he served in the Air Force and went to college on the G.I. Bill. He worked in community action and job-training agencies in Michigan, New York and West Virginia before coming to Knox County in 1965.
Although the War on Poverty is often portrayed as welfare, Shaffer said, “It wasn’t welfare. It was using social services for economic development and ownership.”
West and Shaffer worked with community groups to start small, worker-owned companies, mostly in furniture, crafts and garment-making and train workers to do those jobs. They said they created hundreds of jobs, although many were later lost as U.S. manufacturing jobs moved overseas.
Their biggest accomplishment was creating Job Start Corp. in 1968. It evolved into Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., which has created more than 18,000 jobs and is recognized as one of the most enduring legacies of the War on Poverty.
“I think we made a significant change in parts of Eastern Kentucky,” West said. “I brought the toughness, and Bob brought the brains.”
Toughness was important. West said he often traveled with an armed bodyguard. A key principle of War on Poverty programs was that poor people should have a voice in decisions that affected them. Local politicians and power brokers saw that as a threat.
“These people weren’t used to other people having money to work with that they didn’t control,” Shaffer said. “It was a pretty hostile environment.”
Shaffer said Gov. Louie B. Nunn stymied War on Poverty efforts and tried to get West fired. Officials resisted giving poor people a voice on the Area Development District boards that allocated federal money. Then, as now, many of those boards were controlled by good ol’ boy networks.
Shaffer and West think the War on Poverty would have had a bigger impact had Richard Nixon, a Republican, not been elected president in 1968 and scuttled his Democratic predecessor’s programs. But the ideas behind the War on Poverty still have value today, they said.
“You’re never going to change the culture of Appalachia until you have a legitimate organization of the poor and their allies,” Shaffer said. “The majority of the people in the mountains are just as capable as anyone else if they have the same education and economic opportunities as anyone else.”
What are the lessons of the War on Poverty? Not that poverty can’t be overcome, or that government efforts won’t work. It is that change will never come from people with a vested interest in the status quo.