Chapter 11: 'A lot of people here have just given up'

jcheves@herald-leader.comNovember 16, 2013 

INEZ — The president of the United States dropped from the sky in 1964 to shake the hand of unemployed coal miner Tommy Fletcher and declare war on poverty.

A half-century later, viewed from where it began, the war has produced a depressing stalemate.

President Lyndon B. Johnson toured Martin County as he prepared to ask Congress for a $1 billion aid package for Appalachia, a place thrust into an unflattering spotlight by Harry Caudill's book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area.

Johnson flew in by helicopter and led the White House press corps through the area's rugged countryside so everyone could see how badly the Appalachian people lived.

His advance team chose a good backdrop. Seventy percent of Martin County dwelt in poverty. Fletcher, sitting on his porch with the president in now-iconic photographs, somehow supported his wife and eight children on $400 the previous year. The average American family had earned $5,600 — 14 times as much.

Speaking afterward, Johnson urged "this great and good-hearted and rich nation to give attention" to its forgotten poor.

"The people of America are not asking for handouts," Johnson said. "They want a chance to support themselves. They want a fair chance to get ahead. That is what we are going to try to provide for them, for everybody, wherever they live."

Johnson got his war, soon elevated by capital letters into the War on Poverty. More than $23 billion went into Appalachia from 1965 through 2010 under the auspices of the federal Appalachian Regional Commission, chiefly for highway construction, but also for water lines, public buildings and other infrastructure.

Hundreds of billions of dollars more poured into the region as welfare, food stamps, jobless benefits, disability compensation, school subsidies, affordable housing, worker training, economic development incentives, Head Start for poor children, and expanded Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Martin County alone has collected $2.1 billion in government transfer payments to residents since the late 1960s.

Life improved, to a point.

Poverty rates dropped dramatically across the United States. Take a map of the country and a pen. Color the counties black where more than one in three people live in poverty. In 1960, nearly all of the Southeast, including Kentucky, would be black. By 2010, only a few such pockets of poverty remained, including the Mississippi Delta, the Texas-Mexico border and Eastern Kentucky.

However, even in Martin County, deep inside Eastern Kentucky, the poverty rate has been nearly halved, to 37 percent, since Johnson's visit.

"We've still got people up in the hollows with chickens on their porches; I won't deny it," Martin County Judge-Executive Kelly Callaham said. "But look at some of the improvements we've made. Ninety percent of the people have got city water. There's not a house I know of that don't have electricity to it."

The problem facing Appalachia today isn't Third World poverty. It's dependence on government assistance.

The people of Martin County fell short of Johnson's plan to "support themselves" rather than rely on handouts. In 2011, the county's largest source of personal income wasn't wages and salaries, as it is in a healthy economy. It was $143 million in government transfer payments, direct aid from the American taxpayer for which no good or service was expected in return.

Martin County is not even the most dependent county in Eastern Kentucky. Government data show that the economies of some other counties — Owsley, Wolfe and McCreary among them — are even more reliant on handouts from Washington, D.C.

Paul May, former principal of Blackberry Elementary School in Pike County, said children as young as second- and third-graders take government assistance for granted. This entitlement attitude is passed down through generations, May said.

"Instead of talking about a future of work, or a profession, they talk about getting a check," May said. "That's what they've heard all their lives."

Fifty years into a massive effort to prop up these communities, they can't stand on their own. In the near future, as an austerity-minded Congress continues to cut food stamps, Head Start and other anti-poverty measures, it's not clear what will sustain them.

Going nowhere

"A lot of people here have just given up," said Kathy Howell, 51, who lives in Martin County.

In 1977, at age 16, Howell dropped out of 11th grade in Kermit, W.Va., right across the Tug River. "Just didn't like it no more," she said. She moved to a plot of creekside land near Inez to marry a local boy. They had three children.

Today, Howell shares a trailer with her husband, a grown daughter and six school-age grandkids. The family gets about $2,100 a month, mostly from her disability check, food stamps and spare cash from relatives. She suffers from asthma and other lung ailments that make it impossible to work as a waitress anymore, she said.

Her unemployed husband wants a disability check, too, for his back and leg pain. His claim was rejected, so he has hired one of the Eastern Kentucky lawyers who advertise their success in winning appeals from the Social Security Administration, which runs the nation's two financially struggling disability benefits systems. (One such lawyer, Eric C. Conn of Floyd County, collected millions of dollars in fees by defrauding the disability benefits program, a U.S. Senate committee alleged last month.)

Congress limited traditional welfare in 1996, imposing work requirements and five-year lifetime caps. Claims of mental and physical ailments now echo through the mountains. Disability checks — yielding as much as $710 a month per person — have become the go-to form of relief. Martin County's stagnant population has seen a 14 percent jump in disability enrollment since the 1990s, which doesn't count claims pending or on appeal.

"It's not a lot of money, so we stretch it as far as it will go," Howell said on a recent sunny morning, watching her grandchildren play with a couple of dogs. "We don't go nowhere. Into town and back, that's it."

Howell's situation is typical in a place where more than two-thirds of all adults aren't even counted as part of the work force because of their longtime joblessness.

Among Martin County's bleak data: One-third of its 12,742 people get their health care through Medicaid. One-fourth of its families draw at least one disability check. Thirty-five percent of its people receive food stamps.

Even for Kentucky, a relatively poor state, these are bad numbers.

Martin County is exactly the kind of place Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney referred to in 2012 when he complained about Americans "who are dependent upon government … who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."

Martin County nonetheless voted for Romney by a nearly 6-to-1 ratio over Democratic President Barack Obama.

Coal runs out

Welfare saved Martin County from total collapse. Coal is the only thing that ever created prosperity.

In interviews, residents say they are conflicted about the coal industry, which has killed, injured and sickened workers; avoided paying significant local taxes for generations; claimed 27 percent of the county's mountainous surface land; and caused an environmentally calamitous 306-million-gallon slurry spill in 2000 that fouled yards, gardens and waterways.

However, if there is another source of wealth here, nobody has discovered it.

Martin County's sole economic surge in 50 years came from the coal boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, prompted by the Arab oil embargo. The Norfolk and Western Railway spent $22 million to connect the county's largely untapped coalfields with its West Virginia rail lines. It paid $2.6 million more to acquire 98,600 acres of surface and mineral rights, which it leased to Ashland Oil, Mapco, A.T. Massey and other coal companies.

Unemployment dropped from nearly 40 percent during Johnson's visit to 4 percent during the coal boom. Per capita income rose from $1,000 a year to $7,000.

"LBJ didn't do a damn thing," local historian and poet Rufus Reed, then 87, told the Martin Countian newspaper in 1982. "It was the coal companies that brought Martin County out of poverty."

But coal is a boom-and-bust business. Today, coal mines are closing here and throughout Central Appalachia, struggling to compete because of cheaper natural gas, more accessible coalfields in the West and stricter federal pollution laws.

Few jobs outside the mines pay enough to make it worth leaving the house in the morning.

"Harry Caudill was a prophet," said Mickey McCoy, a former Inez mayor and retired English teacher at the high school.

Caudill, the Whitesburg lawyer who wrote Night Comes to the Cumberlands, taught Appalachian history at the University of Kentucky during the late 1970s. McCoy was one of his students. He expertly mimics Caudill's baritone drawl while reciting one of Caudill's lectures from memory: "'Where will you Eastern Kentuckians go when the coal runs out? What will you do? Will you all move to Lexington and live in towers in the sky?'

"All we've ever had is a tunnel vision for coal as if the coal was going to last forever," McCoy said, resuming his own voice. "There was no other planning. So now there's nothing else here."

McCoy shook the president's hand in 1964 during Johnson's visit. He was 8 years old. In hindsight, McCoy said, he wonders whether the War on Poverty didn't afflict Martin County with a cure as bad as the disease.

"Seems like after that visit, there was a sense of relief here because a pipeline opened up from Washington, D.C., to the hollows. The people said, 'Oh boy! Money!'" McCoy said. "The problem is, generations later, the people still are saying, 'Oh boy! Money!' Public assistance has become a way of life out here in a way that it was never meant to be."

McCoy's wife, Nina, a high school biology teacher, chimed in: "You've got a few people here who have all the money. For everyone else, we give them just enough in their monthly checks to survive and stay up in their hollers and shut up, and let us rip out all the coal and destroy the place."

Losing the war

Experts say the War on Poverty fell short on many fronts in Martin County and much of Appalachia:

• Johnson soon was distracted as the Vietnam War derailed his presidency and drained the U.S. Treasury. His successors had scant interest in his anti-poverty agenda. Benefits programs like Medicaid and Medicare proved popular enough to continue. But efforts to teach the jobless a trade and push them into the work force stalled. By the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and a conservative Congress were defunding work-force development, economist Harry J. Holzer wrote this year in the book Legacies of the War on Poverty.

"The War on Poverty certainly helped Martin County with food stamps and welfare and stuff like that," said Joe Szakos, a community organizer in Inez during the 1980s. "But there wasn't much in the way of lifting folks out of poverty. It was just maintaining folks in poverty."

• The Appalachian Regional Commission paid a fortune to blast broad highways through remote mountains — the "answer to some road builders' prayers," historian David Whisnant called it — without researching whether this was the best economic development strategy, deserving the lion's share of ARC funds.

• At the local level, corrupt courthouse bosses were left in place to steal relief money. The judge-executive in Martin County in the late 1960s did this and went to prison. He quickly was pardoned by President Richard Nixon and was re-elected to office, where he hired several of his relatives.

• At the state level, governors decided where ARC investments went. Devoutly Republican Martin County did not win sympathy from a long line of Democratic governors in Frankfort. The ARC reports spending $1.6 million in Martin County over the decades, a fraction of what its Democratic-voting neighbors got.

• To appease pork-hungry members of Congress, Appalachian aid was slathered across 13 states, from New York in the north to Mississippi in the south, reducing what was available for the core region of Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia.

In his memoirs, published in 1971, Johnson acknowledged mixed results from his War on Poverty.

"There was no magic formula," he wrote. "We had to try a wide variety of approaches. Some worked better than others. Some failed completely. I heard bitter complaints from the mayors of several cities. Some funds were used to finance questionable activities. Some were badly mismanaged. That was all part of the risk."

Too few jobs

The war's central failure is that it didn't create jobs.

Even at its most aggressive, in 1965, more than 15,000 people in Kentucky and West Virginia vied for a mere 616 slots in the Job Corps, a federal employment program run by the short-lived Office of Economic Opportunity, Whisnant wrote in his book Modernizing the Mountaineer: People, Power and Planning in Appalachia.

This summer, Martin County had more than 8,000 residents of traditional working age (ages 18 to 65) and only 3,367 full- and part-time jobs.

The positions that offer decent wages and benefits — in the schools, coal mines, a federal prison and a few small factories — are competitive and hard to get. They usually require advanced education or training, to say nothing of personal connections.

The prison and the largely empty Honey Branch Regional Business Park next door employ 514 people between them. But they deliberately were built near the Johnson and Floyd county lines and draw commuters from those more populous counties, further aggravating the job scarcity for Martin County residents. The prison's best jobs — half or more — go to career employees of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons who transfer here, not to locals, according to interviews. (The Bureau of Prisons declined to comment.)

The prison and the industrial park's combined construction on a reclaimed strip mine cost the public nearly $180 million, or more than $350,000 for each job they now provide.

Callaham, the county judge-executive, recently drove a visitor through the industrial park's 187 grassy acres. He reached a dead end on the quiet main road and paused a minute to stare at the empty horizon. "I hope you get to see some elk," he said finally. "They've been moving through here."

'It's pretty grim'

For most people in Martin County — especially the one-third of adults without high school diplomas — the only employment options are to stock shelves, flip burgers or cashier at one of the gas stations on Ky. 40.

Some people give their occupation as "odd jobs," a catchall that lumps illegal pill dealers with shade-tree mechanics.

Loretta Nelson, 44, stacked timber and cut mineshaft props in a sawmill back when that was available. "That's the hardest work you'll ever do," she said. Now she's employed about eight days a month by a private firm to pick up garbage and cut grass on county roadsides. She and her 17-year-old daughter rely on $367 a month in food stamps to afford groceries.

"I get maybe $280 or $300 (a month) from my job, and that's if I get to work at all," Nelson said. "I've been getting sick recently, so there you go."

James Porter, an employment specialist at the Big Sandy Area Development District, is responsible for finding jobs for people in Martin County. At present, he said, "there are not a lot of options." They can clear vegetation from the rights-of-way for the gas company, or they can toil in fast food.

"It's pretty grim," Porter said. "With the coal industry declining, there's just not a lot here. And what businesses there are in Martin County are suffering because of the coal layoffs. It feels like a downward spiral. Unless there's some sort of rebound, I just don't see anything turning around."

Martin County barely scrapes by with a per capita income of $13,759, compared to $23,033 statewide.

"Harry Caudill talked about people in Eastern Kentucky being too lazy to work. Well, if my only options are welfare with a Medicaid card or a minimum-wage job at a fast-food restaurant, no health insurance, coming home with burns and smelling of grease, what's my logical choice going to be?" asked Thomas Kiffmeyer, who teaches Appalachian history at Morehead State University.

Caudill's prediction

Caudill warned 50 years ago that Eastern Kentucky needed work, not welfare.

In any place where industries cannot be established, residents should move — or be moved — to where good jobs exist, Caudill wrote in Night Comes to the Cumberlands. Idle lives on welfare will destroy the once-independent Appalachians, he wrote.

"Nothing in the history of the mountain people had conditioned them to receive such grants with gratitude or to use them with restraint," he wrote. "In a land in which huge corporations and their friends on judicial bench and in legislative hall had reduced the ordinary citizen to a status little better than that of a mere tenant-by-sufferance in his own home, the mountaineer had nurtured a cynicism toward government at all levels. The 'handouts' were speedily recognized as a lode from which dollars could be mined more easily than from any coal seam."

Caudill hadn't seen anything yet.

When his book was published, only 8.3 percent of people in 32 Eastern Kentucky counties drew public assistance, according to the agency then known as the Kentucky Department of Economic Security. In Martin County, two welfare officers at the courthouse oversaw a modest $413,778 in annual relief payments to the elderly, the disabled and families with children.

Today, public assistance is a pillar supporting Eastern Kentucky's economy. In the 5th Congressional District, which covers most of the region, 38 percent of people use Medicaid to pay for health care, 26 percent of households use food stamps to buy groceries and nearly 10 percent of people draw a disability benefits check from Supplemental Security Income.

In Martin County, the welfare bureaucracy has mushroomed into its own industry. The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services employs 32 people in downtown Inez to oversee tens of millions of dollars in aid every year. They occupy the second floor of the Martin County Business Center.

The story behind the Business Center is illustrative.

The Martin County Economic Development Authority speculatively spent $6.9 million in public money five years ago to build the open, light-filled center, tastefully decorated with new furniture and artwork. Officials hoped the center would lure businesses to town.

But none came. So state welfare agents moved in from their offices nearby, arguing that they needed more space to handle their booming caseloads. Financed by Frankfort, they agreed to pay $133,192 a year, or triple their previous Inez rent.

The Martin County Board of Education — which gets 78 percent of its money from state and federal subsidies — abandoned its longtime headquarters to claim the first floor for $80,400 a year in rent. The Business Center created no new jobs and is, like Martin County itself, supported by outside taxpayers.

Reaching kids

In Martin County, the smartest, most ambitious youths typically disappear after high school. There is little reason to return with a college degree because there are few opportunities for college graduates, other than teaching school for a starting salary of $35,112 a year — and the school system already has an overloaded payroll that doesn't reflect its declining student enrollment, school officials say.

"Our chief export is educated young people," said Nina McCoy, the biology teacher. "We have some very bright students who come out of that high school. And nearly without exception, they all leave."

Problems start early. Fifty-six percent of Martin County children are poor. The War on Poverty created a preschool program, Head Start, to help this population before it enters kindergarten. Head Start can be a child's first exposure to books, nutritious meals, discipline, hearing and vision exams, and a world beyond her immediate family in a cluster of mobile homes in an isolated hollow.

However, federal spending cuts since 2005 have sliced Martin County's Head Start enrollment from 160 to 124. So now there's a waiting list. If children are the future, the future is dimming.

"We already have a lot of barriers for families around here," said Patricia Elliott, the county's Head Start director. "We have no pediatric dentist. We have no OB/GYN. We have one licensed day care. Parents may not own a reliable car, and if they do, they may not have gas money."

On a Thursday morning in August, preparing for the new school year, Martin County Head Start teachers and aides fanned out into the countryside around Inez to meet the families of their incoming 3- and 4-year-old students. At home in the Threeforks community, the Maynard family shooed away their barking dogs for the visitors. Inside, Patricia Maynard filled out enrollment paperwork for her 4-year-old son, Christopher. Isabella, 6, slurped a Mountain Dew and watched daytime television.

Christopher, in Spider-Man pajamas, emerged from a rear bedroom to beat a balloon with his toy rifle and shout, "Raarrgh!"

"I hope they can help him get on track with his speaking this year," Patricia Maynard said, gesturing to the boy. "He gets so frustrated because he thinks we're not listening to him."

"We do listen to him; we just can't understand what he's saying," Isabella said.

'Poverty a symptom'

Obstacles continue once children reach school age.

For adults, the Martin County Board of Education is a beacon of hope. It's one of the community's largest employers, cutting paychecks to 470 people and providing health insurance and retirement benefits that can't be found in most private-sector jobs.

For children, though, the schools are plagued by poor test scores, compared to the statewide average, for reading, writing, math and science. In October, the state auditor released a report detailing several acts of nepotism and wasteful spending at the school district, including the apparent diversion of college scholarships to the children of school administrators while other students were left unaware of them.

"The thought of yet another negative blow to the integrity of Martin County schools was not a pleasant one," school board chairman Craig Preece told the auditor in his written reply.

After a diagnostic review of the county's schools this year, the Kentucky Department of Education concluded: "There was little evidence that students were engaged in rigorous coursework and discussions or responded to questions of higher-order thinking. … Of all the persons interviewed during this process — community members, Board of Education members, parents, district and school staff — only one community representative expressed a strong sense of urgency regarding student achievement."

The county school superintendent was relieved of his duties this past summer and returned to teaching at a local school. A new superintendent, Steve Meadows, was hired from Bath County to "bring about needed change in how we operate," as the school board chairman phrased it.

In a recent interview, Meadows said the challenge won't be easy. Beyond its poverty, Martin County must figure out what to educate its children for in an era that has little need for coal miners, he said. And some adults who had difficulty in school themselves aren't "passing along a sense of urgency about education to their children or grandchildren," he said.

"It's unfortunate when we fall behind and we become unplugged from the demands of the marketplace, because then we're not preparing our students for the economy of the future," Meadows said. "Certainly we haven't made much progress in rural America on poverty. And poverty is a symptom of a lack of education."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: Bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com.

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