Ky. Voices: War on Poverty is not a failure; it's just not over

December 1, 2013 

Generational poverty is a lot like a plane crash. The public and the media demand an answer — quickly and definitively — to explain this great injustice so that steps may be taken to prevent a recurrence. But somewhere inside that black box is a myriad of failures, ranging from human to mechanical to systemic, that all contributed to the calamity.

It's just not that simple.

The Herald-Leader has in some ways fallen into this trap in the most recent installment of its otherwise brilliant series "50 Years of Night in Eastern Kentucky," a revisiting of Harry M. Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands. While touching on some elements of systemic poverty in Martin County, such as corruption, poor leadership, inadequate funding, etc., the piece largely lays the failure to resolve Appalachia's economic woes squarely at the feet of the War on Poverty.

With great irony, however, this same package references a map of poverty rates across the United States in 1960 next to the same map for 2010. The difference is staggering — poverty rates have fallen substantially since the 1960s and quality of life for all Americans has improved almost immeasurably. The fact that poverty remains in Martin County and other areas of Appalachia doesn't mean that the War on Poverty didn't work, but that its work is not done.

The War on Poverty was never funded like the Vietnam War or the War on Terror. After a strong start that produced groundbreaking programs like Head Start and Job Corps, the organizations that fight this battle — more than 1,000 community-action agencies — have struggled to stay afloat, much less invest in innovative and effective solutions.

Presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama have tried, over objections from members of Congress in both parties, to shut down the network or cut it to crippling levels. Unfortunately, the article spent little time on what has worked in Eastern Kentucky and elsewhere and the many government programs and nonprofit organizations that keep families out of Third World conditions where they might freeze to death or starve.

Just recently these agencies faced yet another set of impossible decisions as the federal government shut down for three weeks. After waiting to see if employees could be paid and whether needed federal assistance would arrive on time, the nation's social safety net got a reprieve only until January, when it could all happen again.

It's true that the War on Poverty hasn't been perfect. Its supporters, sometimes blinded by their own passion and good intentions, have often fought against change that would reduce dependency or increase accountability. On the other extreme are those who would defund entire programs because they still believe in Ronald Reagan's nearly 30-year-old, disproven myth of the "welfare queen" or some variation of that oversimplification. The answer, as it so often does, lies somewhere in between.

As a people we are outraged when soldiers lack necessary gear to do their jobs in Afghanistan but remain silent when social workers and teachers face the same substantial resource deficits. If you're going to call it a war then you should fund it like a war. Instead, earlier this year, Kentucky cut funding for child care assistance to the lowest eligibility standard in the nation.

We also must set realistic expectations. A professional baseball player can bat .300 and be rewarded with millions of dollars. That means he gets on base — essentially, does his job — 30 percent of the time.

Yet, if a GED program has that same percentage it is judged as a failure and at risk of losing funds. Why? Is the baseball player's work more difficult or important?

It's true that some of the people living in poverty are not entirely without blame. But they aren't lazy or stupid as many want to think.

In fact, some of the best money managers out there are those who know how to survive on $400 a month. They are cash-flow experts who have learned to successfully play ball within the system we created for them. But most would trade that lifestyle in a minute for financial security, safety and the chance to make a better life for themselves, their families and their communities.

All of the negative consequences outlined in the articles are symptoms of the greater problem. Leaders are corrupt, families are dependent, schools are broken, economic development is failing not because the War on Poverty is somehow responsible but because all of us have accepted this as the status quo. We have failed to demand better from our leaders and in the absence of our collective voice they have turned to the power and money of coal and other interests to fill that void.

We can do this. All of us have watched as Kentucky survived dire predictions about the fall of the tobacco industry and its impact on our state. If Eastern Kentucky poverty got even half the media attention and passion of University of Kentucky basketball, then we would have licked this thing already. It's time for Kentuckians to "Commonwealth Up" and put our best people and resources and, yes, money into fighting what should be the definitive and possibly final battles of the War on Poverty.

Help out by giving, serving, or advocating on behalf of your neighbors whether they are in Lexington or Martin County. Because one thing you won't find inside the black box of poverty is that pointing fingers in any direction will solve anything.

Charlie Lanter is the manager for program development at the Community Action Council for Lexington-Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison, and Nicholas counties.

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