Poverty, White Privilege, and Short Memories

The poor whites of Appalachia may have become unfashionable, but they have not gone anywhere.

The current political left's obsession with both income inequality and so called White Privilege overlooks a lot of history. How quickly does the left forget. Or perhaps it is more a matter of fashion.

In 1964, when LBJ declared his War on Poverty, the area he mentioned by name was not the urban ghettos of Detroit, Watts or Harlem but rather the isolated rural counties of Eastern Kentucky.

LBJ at the Fletchers' cabin in Inez, Kentucky, in 1964. Photo: Corbis

Four years later, in 1968, Bobby Kennedy decided to run for the presidency mere days after touring Eastern Kentucky to review how LBJ's War on Poverty was being waged in the field.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy shook hands with residents of Haymond, Kentucky in 1968.

Senator Kennedy walks through Hazard, Kentucky in 1968.

Today, some 46 years later, the war has been lost. The region not only remains poor but hopelessness and dysfunction abounds.  What has changed is the politicians no longer seem to be interested in the area or in its people.  Recently Kevin D, Williamson of National Review visited Eastern Kentucky and wrote

If the people here weren't 98.5 percent white, we'd call it a reservation.

Read the entire article, titled The White Ghetto.  The explanation of how EBT cards are used to purchase cases of soda pop, to resell at a steeply discounted price to raise cash to buy prescription painkillers, is most illuminating.  So are some of the comments after the article, especially those of people who take umbrage that Williamson focused on the negatives in the region. Nonsense!  Although the part of Appalachia I live in is not as deeply mired in poverty, the pathologies remain the same. Welfare is ubiquitous, drug abuse is rampant and there is little hope for a better life for many of the young because of chronically poor school systems. 

One issue Williamson doesn't touch upon which is mentioned in the comments to his article is how corrupt the local governments in this region can be.  One huge factor that allows this to continue is that for decades the brighter young people have been prone to move away.  Those with educations who stay behind too often display small pond syndrome -- they can be opportunistic bullies and tyrants who grab the reins of the local power structure and remain largely unchallenged.  In such a corrupt environment a third rate lawyer can readily  parlay his ambitions into a lucrative role as the shadow leader of local government, or an incompetent principal can rely on political clout to remain in charge of a public school that routinely shortchanges its students.

Back in 1968 some in the area saw Bobby Kennedy's trip as a precursor for yet another round of unfulfilled political promises.  The term "photo op" wasn't in use back then, but looking at these images across five decades of experience it readily comes to mind. 

Today, the only promises being made to the once-loyal Democrat voters of the region are to further curtail the remaining source of high paying, private sector jobs, the coal industry. 

To Williamson, Eastern Kentucky still seems very isolated. It is in terms of the types of bricks and mortar services such as stores and restaurants that urban dwellers take for granted.  One huge change from 50 years ago, however, is that it is no longer isolated in terms of information.  Thanks to the internet and satellite TV, residents know what is happening in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC.  Many of them are well aware that the political left that championed them during the battle to unionize the coal fields and during the opening skirmishes of the War on Poverty have moved on.  That the sensibilities of the worshipers of Mother Gaia have largely replaced those of the followers of Mother Jones in the minds of the political left.  

This awareness of the outside world is a source of bitterness.  It takes a good education for residents of Appalachia to seek better employment opportunities and to relocate.  The scarcity of good local schools is compounded because few of those in higher education seem to be keen on offering the sort of special assistance for the bright young overwhelmingly white men and women of Appalachia that they routinely offer to black and Hispanic children.  

This favoritism may be helping to perpetuate a black/white racial divide that has largely disappeared among the white middle and upper classes nationwide.  I find it interesting that the only white people under age 65 I have heard use the N word to describe blacks in recent years are the often bright but chronically undereducated lower class whites in the region.  They know it is taboo and they don't care, in part because they feel they have a far better claim to victim status than most of the blacks they see on TV. 

On the positive side, the War on Poverty has largely alleviated the hunger that used to plague the working poor in the region -- except, of course, for the sad cases of the children of parents who sell all their welfare benefits on the black market for drug money.  But what the War has left in its place can be a grinding spiritual poverty akin to the old theological concept of limbo, life forever spent on the edges of hell.  The ability to live in marginal comfort without having to do any productive work has left in Appalachia and indeed all across the nation in a situation in which they feel awful enough to seek escape in the haze of drugs but not quite bad enough to bother with risky attempts at self improvement and relocation. 

Perhaps that's because the real goal of the left all along has been political control rather than helping individuals make the most of themselves.   As the band the Rainmakers noted:

They'll turn us all into beggars 'cause they're easier to please
They're feeding our people that Government Cheese

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