Monday, April 21, 2014

Rural poverty and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty

Trip Gabriel's front-page story in today's New York Times is headlined "50 Years into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back."  He reports from Twin Branch, West Virginia, in McDowell County, population 20,876 and the poorest county in the state with a poverty rate of 33.5%.  Gabriel likens McDowell County to a "rural Detroit, with broken windows on shuttered businesses and homes crumbling from neglect."  He notes that of the nation's 353 persistent poverty counties (those with poverty rates greater than 20% over the past three decades), 85% are rural. These counties are clustered in distinct regions:  in the west and southwest, on Indian reservations; Latina/os in the Rio Grande Valley; Blacks in the Deep South and Mississippi Delta, and whites in Appalachia "which has supplied some of America's iconic imagery of rural poverty since the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans."  

Gabriel continues:  
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. 
Fifty years after the war on poverty began, its anniversary is being observed with academic conferences and ideological sparring — often focused, explicitly or implicitly, on the “culture” of poor urban residents. Almost forgotten is how many ways poverty plays out in America, and how much long-term poverty is a rural problem.
McDowell County is nearly 90% white, and it includes no metropolitan or micropolitan area.  Fewer than a third of residents are in the labor force, not only because of the loss of "good" coal jobs, but because many cannot pass drug tests.  Gabriel reports that Social Security, federal disability payments, food stamps and other federal programs comprise nearly half of personal income in the county.

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