June 17, 2004 – Almost 40 years since the Johnson administration announced a program to fight poverty in Appalachia, many people there struggle to afford basic food and shelter.
Johnson created the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1965 to fund economic development in the region, which extends for almost 1,000 miles from New York to Mississippi. Since then, the ARC has distributed federal grants which have provided more than 800,000 people access to clean water and sanitation facilities, according to the Associated Press. Almost 2,300 miles of roads have been completed through Appalachia, at a cost of $6.2 billion funded by the Commission.
Other improvements have been made as well. The areaâ€™s poverty rate declined from 31 percent in 1960 to 13.6 percent in 2000, and the percentage of adults with a high school diploma increased by almost 70%.
But for people like Larry and Iva Barkley, little has changed. The couple, interviewed by the AP, lives in Lower Turkeyfoot Township, Pennsylvania. Larry has been on disability for two years and needs a heart transplant. His wife, Iva, who was severely burned in a fire as a child, cannot get a job because she fears losing her husbandâ€™s government-funded health coverage. Once their youngest son graduates from high school, their monthly income -- in the form of a Social Security check -- will be just $810.
The family survives by hunting and eating deer and pheasants. â€œIf it wasnâ€™t for shooting a deer and a few pheasants, we wouldnâ€™t have any red meat except for maybe a piece of beef once in a while,â€� Larry told the AP. Iva cans food from the garden for the family to eat during the winter. The couple spends about $45 a month at the grocery store.
Local officials interviewed by the AP admitted that they have known families who melt snow for water, live with chickens in their homes or still use outhouses.
Only eight of the 410 counties in Appalachia are equal to or better than the national average on indicators like per-capita income, poverty, and unemployment rates, according to Ohio News Now. All eight counties are urban or suburban. Poverty remains the worst in central Appalachia, including eastern Kentucky. Of the 91 counties classified by the ARC as â€œdistressed,â€� 35 are in eastern Kentucky. In these areas, poverty rates are double the national average, according to the AP.
Even these figures do not tell the whole story. The Ironton Tribune reports that Congressman Ted Strickland (D-Ohio), has asked the ARC and Ohio Governor Bob Taft to revise the qualifications for â€œdistressedâ€� counties. In a letter to the governor and the ARC, Taft argues that the US Labor Departmentâ€™s unemployment figures are misleading. In Lawrence County, the local government reported an unemployment rate of 17.9 percent--three times the Labor Departmentâ€™s figure. Taft writes, â€œOf this 17.9 percent, [more than] 10 percent are individuals who are unemployed but who have simply given up and stopped seeking work, a measure that is not included in the Department of Laborâ€™s official measure of unemployment.â€�
The ARC currently spends $450 million each year building highways and $66 million on economic development projects, according to the AP. In the late 1960s, the group often received twice that much for economic development.
The Bush administration tried to cut the ARCâ€™s economic development budget to just $30 million, but lawmakers from Appalachian states prevented the cuts.
Poverty in Appalachia has a long history--from immigrants who settled in the hills and died young in coal mines at the turn of the century to todayâ€™s impoverished residents who work at Wal-Mart, McDonaldâ€™s and Dairy Queen after being laid off from mining and manufacturing jobs.
Most of the jobs were lost as industries switched from Appalachiaâ€™s bituminous coal to cleaner-burning Western coal. Between 1950 and 1960, more than 640,000 Appalachians lost coal and agricultural jobs, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Mining now employs just two percent of the workforce in Appalachiaâ€™s coal-producing region, according to the ARC. In the last four years, 4,000 coal miners have lost their jobs. Around 1,500 still die each year from black lung disease, according to the United Mine Workers of America.
Most of the mining jobs have been replaced by low-paying, non-unionized service sector jobs. In 2000, the service sector employed more than half of all Appalachian workers. Two million of these workers are in occupations classified as particularly low-skilled and low-paying.
â€œAppalachia is too often ignored, but it tells a stark truth,â€� Jesse Jackson wrote in an editorial last week before a recent tour of the region. â€œIt is time for America to listen.â€�
In The Other America, a book published in 1962 that first called national attention to Appalachian poverty, Michael Harrington wrote, â€œPoverty is often off the beaten track. It always has been. The ordinary tourist never left the main highway, and today rides interstate turnpikes... . He does not see the company houses in rows, the rutted roads (the poor always have bad roads whether they live in the city, in towns, or on farms), and everything is black and dirty.â€�
The â€œordinary touristâ€� does not see people like Robert J. â€œMoeâ€� Phillippi, recently interviewed by the AP. Phillippi, toothless and barefoot, lives in a run-down cabin in Somerset County, Penn. Dynamite blasts from strip mining ruined the familyâ€™s well and turned their bath water the color of rust.His wife, Carol, suffers from diabetes. She says she has not been to the doctor in more than two years. The couple raises their 14-year-old grandson on $1,014 a month from Phillippiâ€™s union pension. Last week, Phillippi went grocery shopping, but had to put back potatoes and lettuce after he realized he could not afford them.
â€œI donâ€™t know how I went wrong,â€� he told the AP. â€œI just wish it would get better.â€�