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 firstname.lastname@example.org and visit her blog at sylvia.newcities.org.