It is easy to understand why people in Eastern Kentucky resent the impression given once again that extreme poverty defines the entire region. Many people across Kentucky will agree that programs like this have been seen over and over again with only names and locales changed.
The response that follows is also predictable. Inevitably, viewers after witnessing severe poverty respond by sending help to the featured victims, everything from a scholarship to a pair of popular children's boots. The result is that nothing substantially changes except for a few people. Then, after some time passes, another media representative is moved to tell the story and the cycle repeats. What is missing in these accounts and the response to them is a rational and realistic hope that things can change in Appalachia. Missing are indisputable demonstrations that real and substantial change is possible.
In 1967, I was one of 20 specialists recruited by Sargent Shriver's Office of Economic Opportunity to serve in the 100 poorest counties in the United States. After reading Harry Caudill's Night Comes to the Cumberlands, I offered to work in the Special Technical Assistance Program in the Cumberland Valley of Kentucky, an eight-county area that included two of the 10 poorest counties in the nation.
While organizing Community Action Agencies, I asked poor men and women what they needed most. Repeatedly they responded, "Jobs and income." No one asked for more welfare programs. While helping these organization make plans, I learned of a new federal program called Special Impact. It provided grants of investment funds to Community Development Corporations (CDCs). Working with five agencies, I helped organize Job Start, a 10-county CDC, and secured both a research and pilot programs grant and a grant for an initial operation.
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The results were exceptional. In one community, previously unemployed men and women built a large industrial building in which newly trained workers manufactured high quality upholstered furniture sold nationally by Sears and hundreds of department stores in the Eastern United States. (Lawson Furniture sales in 1972 were $508,000.) In another county, one of the two poorest in the United States, unemployed women were trained as tailors using government surplus sewing machines.
Eventually an industrial building was constructed and these skilled workers made goods sold by Laura Ashley. Other products were manufactured and sold in fine stores like Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdales. Another Job Start effort resulted in Outdoor Venture Corp., manufacturing tents and other outdoor products. (First-year sales approached $1 million.)
These on-the-ground, indisputable results gave legitimate hope to the region's poor that the cycle of poverty could be broken.
A critical element in the efforts was the involvement of representatives of the poor on boards of directors. This concept was anathema to newly elected President Richard Nixon. Once in office, he began systematically to terminate or emasculate many of the Great Society programs inspired by President Lyndon Johnson. To achieve his purpose regarding the poverty program, Nixon appointed Donald Rumsfeld to head the OEO.
Rumsfeld called all the special technical assistants to Washington to tell us that, while the work we had been doing was very effective, the program was being canceled. No justification was provided.
Soon, local governments, assisted by Congress, regained control of the federal poverty funds. Job Start was renamed the Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp.
Today, a new, carefully designed citizen-based investment program serving Appalachia can achieve results like those demonstrated in the Cumberland Valley. I know what is possible because I witnessed it.
Instead of just one young woman receiving a pair of Hannah Montana boots, the newly employed poor will be manufacturing them, or other more essential items.