The Dawn of a New Age in the War on Poverty


An article published in the Chicago Tribune on June 29, 1992 is entitled “The Great Society’s Great Failure.” It profiles the Inez, Kentucky family that appeared in the famous front porch photo that launched LBJ’s War on Poverty in 1964. Suffice it to say without revealing the particular gory details of their thwarted lives, the family’s fate was as dismal as the outcome of the War on Poverty. Mike Duncan, an Inez banker and now chairman of the Republican National Committee – battling to retain his position – put it mildly: “The War on Poverty did not succeed.”

In 2009 where do we stand with America’s War on Poverty? Inez and the rest of Martin County were described in the article as “one of the poorest counties in a poor state. Of its 12,526 people, all but 27 are white.” The image stuck and Inez has been digging out ever since.

The community’s lack of progress over the past several decades has been particularly ironic: until recently, the rest of America has been experiencing one of the greatest economic expansions in history.

Now we have elected our first African American to the office of the presidency, a man who cut his political teeth working among the black poor of Chicago’s Southside. Barack Obama’s election has no doubt raised hopes around the Southside and other predominately African American distressed communities. But can the same be said for the more numerous, equally intractable neglected communities – labeled poor, white, aging, and rural (PWAR) – like Inez?

This line of thinking has become even more popular as evidenced by the racial overtones, masquerading as satire, included on a CD released by a challenger of Mike Duncan for the RNC chair position. Politicos say there is a divide within both of the major political parties – appeal to the PWAR and die or reach out to gather more under the tent. PWARs are rarely spoken of in the media except in pejorative terms

So far, there is little evidence that poor rural whites – epitomized by Appalachia – have any strong advocates in the new administration. There is not a single cabinet officer from anywhere in the deep or mid-south nor any important figure in the majority party from the region.

So, what happens to the fortunes of the regions – the South in particular – in the new order? Will the battle of red versus blue gain new ground or will other rivalries and labels rise up? Will a region whose economy revolves around coal have a chance in a “new green world?”

Right now places like Kentucky – decidedly red – could well be marginalized. The media enjoys painting our citizens as ignorant rubes (how else could they have voted against Obama?) This was implied in the mainstream news. (CNN had particular fun with it while profiling Clay County, Kentucky before the election and conducting a trailer escapade in Carlisle, Kentucky after the election).

Seventeen years after the Tribune’s article, Inez and the rest of Martin County have chosen to declare their own war to overcome the endemic national stereotype that the War on Poverty placed upon them. This new spirit of localism was born first among the community’s young professionals who left Inez as high school graduates and have now returned as educated professionals seeking to earn their own piece of the American Dream. Their hope has been burnished in the fire of experiences gained as they saw and experienced the rewards of hard work and determination in other places. They concluded that Inez and Martin County could be something different, and they have returned to make it so.

It is clear that President-elect Obama has a choice: be a great president and a uniter, or not. They say FDR was great because he reached out to those who were not for him. The times now are eerily similar. One hopes that a man who grew up as an outsider might realize that the “hill” people of Appalachia or the deep South aren’t all pathetic as portrayed in the news media; perhaps they don’t understand the message of hope because they have been betrayed before by “outsiders” attempting to convert them to the “mainstream.” The failures of the ‘war on poverty’ are still well remembered here.

Not all 100 or more million new Americans who will be here by 2050 will head for the eight supercities. The vast majority won’t find work that will allow them to settle in the so-called “creative” hotbeds. Many will head for small to mid-sized towns with more affordable lifestyles, and perhaps more durable values. Perhaps others will begin to believe in the old adage that we can live and work anywhere and will do so, taking the opportunity to bring change to our communities.

For its part, Inez, Kentucky has decided to rewrite its story and believes it can do so. As an Appalachian native, I believe it too. Their story is one of grit, determination, and sheer willpower to change the course of the future in a positive way. At a recent public meeting, an African American woman who had moved to Inez from D.C. stood up and provided a testimonial of faith and belief in her newfound home. She hoped others would come and begin to appreciate the lifestyle of a small town in hill and coal country. I had to ask afterward – is she for real? “Yes” came the reply, “she is very real.”

A recent Esquire magazine feature called on “natives” to describe each of the 50 states. Actor Harry Dean Stanton, in the midst of philosophical ramblings, said: “There’s no answer to the state of Kentucky.” I don’t believe that’s entirely true.

Sylvia L. Lovely is the Executive Director/CEO of the Kentucky League of Cities and the founder and president of the NewCities Institute. She currently serves as chair of the Morehead State University Board of Regents. Please send your comments to and visit her blog at

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some ways to reduce poverty over time

When I was in junior high school more than 23 years ago, I did research dealing with functional illiteracy dealing with reading and writing. There were more functional illiterates dealing with reading and writing in our country at that time than there were people living in Canada at that time. Help all our citizens learn to read and write in English so they have more options available to them. The federal government, state governments, and businesses should help fund and run free education websites that have top teachers and top students using many different languages to teach k-12 courses, college courses, graduate school courses, and other courses via video, audio, notes, and other things. Teachers and students could be compensated. The more languages that our citizens know well the more opportunities for wealth creation our citizens may have.

The federal government, state governments, and businesses should spend a lot more money on libraries especially in poor urban areas and poor rural areas. I obtained much of my education from the Nashua Public Library in Nashua, New Hampshire when I was growing up. Sometimes, the only way for a poor child to obtain a decent education in our country now is by going to the library. I obtained a great education from the Nashua public schools.

Amendment One of the United States Constitution mentions "free exercise" of religion. If you care about poor children and other children, you should want them to have a lot more choices in education especially at small schools. Students should be allowed to use vouchers to attend private k-12 schools including private religious schools. People want competition in retail stores, restaurants, and gas stations. They should support real competition in education.

The federal government, state governments, and businesses should spend A LOT more money on free during the school day tutoring, free after school tutoring, and free weekend tutoring on school grounds and other places. Students from wealthy families should NOT be the only students who have high quality tutoring available to them. One of one instruction may be especially important to poor children and other children. Free websites could also be used to provide free tutoring from top teachers and top students. The teachers and students could be compensated. A teacher in Nebraska could tutor a student who lives in Florida. A student in Florida could tutor a child who lives in California.

Our country needs to care a lot more about improving and increasing our manufacturing base if we want to help poor people move into the middle class and help people who are middle class now stay middle class. I discuss manufacturing on my profile.

The federal government, state governments, and businesses should spend a lot more on buses within cities, buses between cities, passenger rail, and freight rail. The better freight rail is the easier small farmers and other businesses may be able to transport their products. If people have an easier time getting to jobs and from jobs via buses, governments may be able to spend less money on food stamps and Medicaid. If families have less need for 2nd cars and 3rd cars, they may be able to save money on gas, auto insurance, auto maintenance, and other auto related costs which may help them have more money for other things. People who do not have to own cars have more money for books, computers, college educations, down payments on homes and fixed rate mortgages, and retirements.

Businesses especially small businesses need capital to stay in business. The federal government should stop taxing interest from savings accounts, dividends, capital gains, and estates. Businesses especially small businesses may have an easier time obtaining loans and investments for hiring workers, research and development, and plant and equipment. Individuals and businesses might be more willing to make microloans to people who live in poor urban areas and poor rural areas. Wealthy people and others may be more willing to donate money to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, and food pantries. Many middle class people, union members, and government employees who have mutual funds may benefit if capital gains and dividends are not taxed.

The federal government, state governments, and businesses should spend a lot more money on cooperative education similar to what takes place at Northeastern University in junior high schools, high schools, and colleges so that students are better prepared for work. I recommend people study schools in Europe.

The federal government and state governments should reduce the minimum wage over time and eventually eliminate it. When the minimum wage increases, people who live in high unemployment urban areas and high unemployment rural areas are likely to have a harder time obtaining jobs and skills. If you run a business and you have to pay the minimum wage are you likely to A. employ people in a middle class area where people are well educated and have skills or B. employ people in a poor area where people are poorly educated and do not have many skills? The minimum wage is one of the main reasons why poverty has been as much of a problem as it has been for decades in many poor urban areas and poor rural areas. If the minimum wage increases, expect the recession to get a lot worse. If the minimum wage increases, expect teenagers and former prisoners to have a harder time obtaining jobs and skills. Many teenagers are parents and making it harder for them to obtain jobs and skills may increase the probability thay they and their children will live in poverty. If the minimum wage increases, many businesses may fire workers, many businesses may reduce hours, many salaried workers may work more hours for the same pay, and prices are likely to increase.

I added a recommended reading list to my profile on January 21, 2009.

I graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 1992 with a BA Degree In Political Science and a minor in Economics.

I ran for United States Senate in 2002.

My website is


Ken Stremsky