Today is the 50th anniverary of President Lyndon Johnson’s declaration of “unconditional war on poverty in America.” To mark the occasion, NPR has begun a series of reports on poverty in the United States today. I listened to the first of these in the car on the way to work this morning and was very glad I caught it.
I was glad to learn what the report had to offer, of course, but probably appreciated it more because I am so familiar with the place that reporter Pam Fessler chose to consider: Martin County, Kentucky (marked in red on the state map). I worked a stone’s throw from Martin County for two years (and I mean that literally: you could throw a stone across the creek into Martin County from the spot I parked my car every day when I got to work in Kermit, West Virginia). Many of our clients at Christian Help of Mingo County were Martin County residents. (Some of them are featured in photos in the little video I made during my time there that you’ll find at the Christian Help homepage; it’s the bottom of the two videos there.)
I know well the places Fessler mentions in her report: the town of Inez, Kentucky, and the mountains, hollers, and coalfields that surround it. I don’t know personally the people she talks to, but their surnames are familiar ones in the area.
The other thing I know well, and which made me smile, is that accent in those people’s voices. After living in the region for a couple of years and getting to know the people well, hearing that accent is like pulling a warm blanket around myself. Sounds corny, I suppose, but, well, they’re good people, who welcomed and befriended my family and me without ever for a single moment treating us as the outsiders that we were.
I can tell you that Fessler does not exaggerate the poverty of the region a bit. Her report does suggest the difficulties it causes, the crucial help that government support offers, and determination of many in the region to get by as best they can by their own efforts.
What Fessler did not mention, and probably did not have time to go into, is the broad and powerful historical, economic, and business forces that brought the region to where it was on the day Lyndon Johnson visited and where it is still today. Perhaps NPR will have a chance to explore that in the reports that will follow.
Read or listen to Pam Fessler’s NPR report, “Kentucky County That Gave War On Poverty A Face Still Struggles,” here.