Some still fighting War on Poverty after 40 years

May 23, 2004 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

ECKMAN, W.Va. - Staring blankly from behind a curtain of bangs, Amanda Mullins has an outlook that's as black as the coal heaped in the railroad gondolas rumbling down the tracks behind her.

Childhood dreams of becoming a pediatrician died with the birth of a son and an education cut short after the 10th grade. At 18, unwed and on welfare, Mullins has set her sights on earning her high school equivalency diploma so she and her baby can follow that coal out of McDowell County.

"He's just going to follow right in my footsteps if he stays here," Mullins says over the squeal of the passing train. 'Ain't no future here 'cause ain't no jobs here."

Forty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "War on Poverty" McDowell County seems more like an orphan - some would say victim - of that struggle.

Whether measured in miles of road paved or high school diplomas earned, there is no question that Appalachia has come a long way since it was famously called "The Other America."

The regional poverty rate has been slashed from 31 percent in 1960 to 13.6 percent in 2000, just over a point higher than the national average.

And the percentage of adults in the region with a high school education or better has increased by more than 70 percent.

Nearly 2,300 miles of roads through Appalachia have been completed at a cost of $6.2 billion, and federal grants have given more than 800,000 families access to clean water and sanitation facilities.

But while many parts of this 13-state region that stretches from New York to Mississippi have reached parity with the nation as a whole, rural central Appalachia remains very much a region apart.

As metropolitan areas spread to include much of official Appalachia, and resources are directed at regional growth centers, the areas of entrenched poverty face an "outlook that is fairly grim," says Ohio University sociologist Ann Tickamyer.

"I think what we will see in the near future is more of the same - sort of nibbling away at the edges," says Tickamyer, co-author of a soon-to-be-released study of the region's depressed areas. "And the persistence of severe poverty the most severe poverty in the most remote areas."

McDowell County is one such area. At one time, the county's population swelled to more than 100,000, a fifth of those employed digging the coal that forged the steel and generated the electricity that propelled the United States to economic dominance.

Last year, more than 4 million tons of coal rolled out of this southernmost West Virginia county but it took barely 700 people to produce it.

The county ranks last in West Virginia in economic sustainability and general health; first for its rate of diabetes, low birth weights, births to unwed mothers, suicide, homicide and sudden infant death. The life expectancy of 64.5 years for men is about 13 years less than the national average.

During coal's heyday the mining companies supplied most people's needs, from jobs to housing to sewage to medical care.

With the War on Poverty, the government replaced that "coal-camp mentality" with another kind of dependency says Jo-Claire Datson, a program director with the Council of the Southern Mountains and president of the county's rural health advisory board.

"You're dealing with a population in which those who were raised with work ethics and who really want to work have left, for the most part," says Datson, who left an analyst position with Dun & Bradstreet seven years ago to give back to her native community.

Those remaining here, she says, may not be against working, "but they don't know how."


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