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Far as the curse is found

The poverty rate remains stubbornly high 50 years—and trillions of dollars—after the federal war on poverty began, but some have learned true riches come from a source higher than government

An abandoned mine which once produced coal for the Bull Creek Coal Corporation stands across from St. Martha’s Catholic Church in Prestonsburg, Ky. Luke Sharrett

Far as the curse is found
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NEON, Ky.—On a steep hill overlooking an abandoned coal mine in McDowell, Ky., a broken railroad and rusted coal chute testify to busier days in this isolated community in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.

During the mine’s heyday in the 1960s, sturdy men strapped on heavy helmets with bright headlamps and descended into the earth to extract tons of black rock that powered thousands of homes and most of the state’s economy.

On a recent morning at the same site in McDowell, dozens of local residents clutched red shopping baskets and filed into the mine’s tiny office to extract a handful of donated canned goods to help them through the holiday season.

The once-bustling mine is now home to God’s Appalachian Partnership (GAP)—a Christian ministry that helps residents struggling in the region’s long-depressed economy. The simple supplies won’t make a feast, but they’ll supplement food stamps most clients receive.

On this morning, mothers with toddlers squeezed into a crowded hallway, carefully selecting cans of corn, jars of spaghetti sauce, and packages of ramen noodles from plastic shelves. In a room at the end of the hall, Perry Como’s voice wafted from a radio: “From now on your troubles will be out of sight.”

It’s a scene far removed from a November morning in the Oval Office in 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson had just won the national election, and he told a Democratic senator his lofty ambitions for the term ahead: “Lincoln abolished slavery, and we’re going to abolish poverty.”

Fifty years later, the outcome is clear: The poor are still with us.

Indeed, Johnson’s “unconditional war on poverty”—inspired partly by visits to eastern Kentucky in 1964—produced an opposite effect. Instead of providing short-term aid and bolstering local economies, some government programs produced long-term dependence and weakened working conditions.

The more government gave, the less self-reliance grew.

That wasn’t Johnson’s goal. The president pledged he wanted to give poverty-stricken Americans “a fair chance to develop their own capacities” and embrace “opportunity not doles.” But a critical problem emerged: Sometimes relying on the dole became the most accessible opportunity.

Consider the stats: Today the federal government has at least 92 programs to help low-income Americans, including 17 food aid programs and more than 20 housing programs. Total government spending on the programs in 2012: nearly $800 billion.

Since Johnson declared war on poverty in 1964, the U.S. government has spent over $22 trillion on anti-poverty programs, according to the Heritage Foundation. That’s three times the cost of all military wars in U.S. history since the American Revolution. And it doesn’t include Social Security or Medicare.

The result? Today the poverty rate in America hovers at around 15 percent—about the same as when the war on poverty began.

But the federal government isn’t the only big spender.

In eastern Kentucky—where the poverty rate approaches 175 percent of the national rate—a host of nonprofits, church groups, and Christian ministries have poured massive amounts of money and manpower into the region. Every summer, busloads of youth groups from all over the country descend on these hills to fix roofs, patch holes, and paint houses.

Often the assistance is helpful—especially to widows and the elderly—but it can also be overwhelming. In eastern Kentucky’s Owsley County—where government benefits account for 53 percent of the county’s income—one resident told The American Prospect: “I think we’ve been helped so much, we’re getting helped to death.”

The combination of high levels of poverty and government aid produces unflattering stereotypes of a region once known for its backbreaking work ethic. Kevin Williamson of National Review recently called this part of the country “the big white ghetto,” and derided locals for “the pills and the dope, the morning beers … the tall piles of gas-station nachos … the draw. …”

But beyond easy potshots over serious problems, another story quietly unfolds. Some families have learned that man doesn’t live by bread alone, and that poverty isn’t a line in a checkbook. And some of those helping have learned that relationships offer something the government can’t give, and that poverty is a problem everyone faces, no matter how much money they have.

A DRIVE THROUGH EASTERN KENTUCKY'S COAL MINING TOWNS reveals a region familiar with boom and bust. Since mining began here in the 1800s, many coal operations have hit it big and run their course.

These days, it’s more bust than boom.

For example, a drive through Neon, Ky., doesn’t take long, but this small town was once a bustling center for several surrounding coal camps. Miners came here to buy clothing and supplies, watch a show, or eat a meal.

These days, storefronts sit abandoned with piles of dusty merchandise still visible through busted windows. Cans of oil line the shelves of a long-closed auto repair shop, broken furniture clutters a closed General Electric store, and the marquee at the shuttered theater is rusting.

A local library is open, but its bulletin board reveals local problems, with announcements like: “Get your GED,” “Become a foster parent,” “Payday advances,” and “Narcotics Anonymous.”

In recent years, coal companies have laid off thousands of workers in this region, and unemployment has soared: In nearby Harlan County, coal jobs have fallen by 48 percent in the past three years, and the county’s unemployment rate has hit nearly 17 percent.

Several factors aid the decline: Natural gas has grown popular, coal is easier to mine in other parts of the country, and regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency have grown stringent. Some folks here accuse President Barack Obama of waging a war on coal with severe federal standards.

Whatever the cause, the outcome is clear: For many who stay here, jobs are hard to find and ends are hard to meet.

That’s a plight Tony Brown remembers. From his office at HOMES, Inc., a nonprofit organization that builds and repairs homes for low-income families, Brown recalls how he first came to the organization: He was a client.

Brown grew up near Neon, and married young. By the time he was 21, he and his wife had three children and eventually cared for four others belonging to struggling family members. The family of nine lived in a former coal-camp house in desperate need of repairs.

‘That’s when I heard the good news. ... That it’s all Christ’s work. That anything I do now is because of what He already did. ... And that was great news to me.’

Brown met two men from HOMES who would help strengthen the foundation for his house and his life: John Belden and Seth Long worked for the organization, and eventually helped start a church in Neon that Brown and his family joined. (Brown is still a member of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church.)

The men gave Brown a job at HOMES and mentored him in his Christian faith. They taught Brown he could work hard for a living, but he couldn’t earn his salvation. That was a revelation for Brown, who attended local churches that taught Christians could lose their salvation and work to get it back. (It’s a common teaching in this region that leads to an exhausting cycle that causes many people to stop attending church.)

Belden—who went on to serve as the first pastor of Neon Reformed—explained God’s grace to Brown. “That’s when I heard the good news,” Brown says. “That it’s all Christ’s work. That anything I do now is because of what He already did. … And that was great news to me.”

That great news helped Brown connect his faith to his job, and he began to thrive. Before HOMES hired Brown to work construction in 1996, he says he was dependent on food stamps and welfare.

As he earned more money, his family received less government benefits. Brown says some people struggle with giving up the certainty of a government check for the uncertainty of a job, but he thrived. “I started working here at about five and a nickel an hour, but I was as happy to go to work then as I am right now,” he says. “It was a great feeling for me to have my kids see me get up and go to work everyday. It still is.”

Brown knows that’s not the case for others. He knows men who are physically stronger than he who won’t work because they can collect government benefits. “They are in bondage to that check,” he says. “That check is their master.”

In some ways, a certain level of dependence grew even when jobs were more abundant. In the height of the coal-mining era, miners often lived in company-owned houses, and bosses paid employees with tokens or “scrip” they could use in the company store to buy food and supplies they needed. In many camps, coal bosses even built the churches and employed the ministers.

Now, even traditional skills like gardening have dwindled, as people have grown reliant on food stamps. And local residents say some recipients use food stamps to buy soda to sell or trade for cigarettes.

Some parents have withdrawn children from literacy classes so the family can continue to draw Supplemental Security Income for children with disabilities.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times wrote about the phenomenon in 2012: “This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency.”

When it comes to help from local organizations, HOMES does require clients to participate in their home repairs, but some groups don’t make such requirements. Executive director Seth Long says some residents turn down help from HOMES, saying, “I want the free work.”

That makes helping people on a deeper level more difficult. “It’s like there are so many resources, it’s hard to minister,” says Long. “Entrenching people in the entitlement mentality can happen even when people come to help.”

Other clients receive help after working for many years, and then facing difficult circumstances. Pat Hubbard—once a board member at HOMES—worked at a hospital for decades and supported two children as a single mom before she suffered a heart attack. After she lost a leg to medical complications, HOMES helped make her house more accessible.

She’s grateful for the service, and says it helps her continue to serve her own community. She remains active in her local church, where she plays an organ modified for her disability. She’s discouraged by problems she’s seen grow in the region over the decades, but points to deeper roots: “It’s a moral decline for lack of spiritual instruction.”

Belden—the former pastor of Neon Reformed—learned that spiritual instruction wasn’t always easy to provide. Even after working at HOMES for several years, he found it was difficult to gain the trust of locals wary of outsiders.

Some of the wariness comes from the perception that outsiders bring a savior complex to Kentucky. Belden says he saw this mentality in some church groups that traveled from far away to volunteer for a week: “We’re the ones that have it all together. We’re the ones who are going to fix eastern Kentucky.” Some church groups were even disappointed if residents weren’t as destitute as they expected.

Belden resigned from the Neon church after nine years of exhausting work as a pastor. He left burned out and weary. But looking back, he says seeing his own weakness has made him realize he’s as needy as the people he served—a humbling lesson anyone trying to help others should learn.

“I think God was trying to tell us, ‘You’re not any different,’” says Belden. “You do have something to give, but you need it just as much as they do.”

BACK IN McDOWELL, KY., the staff at God’s Appalachian Partnership (GAP) has a similar mindset.

Staff members at the Southern Baptist ministry offer a food pantry to local residents on Tuesdays and a distribution of toys for children at Christmas, but they also talk to clients about spiritual needs. (As clients come in for their assigned distribution day once a month, they receive food items based on their level of need.)

On a recent Tuesday morning, staff member Kathy Henson met with Shirley Smith, a client who has been coming to the ministry for more than 10 years. Smith, 57, is the guardian for five grandchildren ages 7 to 18. Her income is around $700 a month.

Smith asks for prayer for a son struggling with drug addiction. But she also expresses excitement about recently joining a local church. Henson asks her, “That means you have a relationship with Jesus, right?” Smith answers, “I know that He walks with me.”

Director John Morris—who grew up in nearby Hazard—says the work requires patience and helping people learn how to manage the limited resources they do have. It’s often bewildering, he says, when he realizes it’s more economically viable for a client to stay on welfare than to drive a long distance to find a low-paying job.

Sometimes help begins with small steps: Helping clients develop a budget that shows how much they could save if they cut out soda or cigarettes. Cooking classes to show how they can prepare low-cost, healthy meals. Finance classes with games that help teach basic budgeting principles.

The small steps can lead to bigger changes over time, as clients examine both material and spiritual needs. “They are constantly being told they’re poor,” says Morris. “They develop a hopelessness. … We tell them the hope of Jesus is the only hope we have of our lives being transformed.”

Henson says she knows clients are beginning to change when they talk about how much God has blessed them. She tears up when she recalls a client who recently came in for food and donated a handful of change to the ministry. “I didn’t even know what to do with it,” says Henson. “It was like the widow’s mite.”

Five decades after President Johnson vowed to end poverty, it’s helpful to remember Jesus’ commendation of the widow who was generous, though poor. The story is a reminder of the dignity of those who are thankful for what they have, and a motivation to continue to extend help to those in need, with help that goes beyond material needs.

It’s also cause for celebrating a Savior who became poor—and who still comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.

Jamie Dean

Jamie is a journalist and the former national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and also previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie resides in Charlotte, N.C.


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