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Fifty-year campaign shows strengths, limitations of government programs

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INEZ, Ky. — Fifty years ago, when President Lyndon Johnson drove into this Appalachian town, Route 3 was a two-lane road that hugged the mountains in tight curves. Minzie Stanley was 6 years old, living with her parents and 17 brothers and sisters on one of the narrow gravel lanes that sprouted off the main road.

Johnson was there to shine a spotlight on families living in rural poverty, families such as Stanley's. Minzie's father didn't have a steady job. The family had to grow everything they ate, or they'd go hungry. She got a pair of hand-me-down shoes once a year if she was lucky. There were few good-paying jobs. College was a distant dream.

Stanley moved up and out of poverty, thanks to a coal boom that provided her husband with steady work as a miner. But the cycle wasn't broken. Her daughter, Jennifer Jarrell, 34, and two grandchildren live on food stamps and child support in a two-bedroom trailer that's more than 30 years old.

"We've progressed in certain areas," Jarrell says. "We do have things like indoor plumbing."

Stanley and Jarrell illustrate poverty's grip on the region and, more broadly, the difficulty in bringing about lasting progress. As President Obama prepares to shine a spotlight in his State of the Union address Tuesday night on the mounting problem of income inequality, the past 50 years in Martin County provide a case study of the strengths — and limitations — of government programs to combat poverty.

On April 24, 1964, Johnson toured Appalachia to kick off a "war on poverty" that resulted in food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare and Head Start, still the bedrock programs to help the poor. He flew by helicopter with his wife, Lady Bird, into Martin County, where they met an unemployed sawmill operator and father of eight named Tom Fletcher. The two spoke on the porch of Fletcher's mountainside cabin about the lack of jobs in town. The scene was captured in a famous photograph of Johnson squatting next to Fletcher as he spoke with several of his young sons.

The benefits of Johnson's war on poverty here are undeniable. The programs help feed, house and educate the poor. Federal attention brought new roads — today, Route 3 is a four-lane highway — school buildings, the ability to buy more food and more access to clean water and health care. The one-room tarpaper shacks that dotted the mountains are a thing of the past, as are the distended bellies of malnourished children

But for all of Johnson's programs, and despite a coal boom in the 1970s and '80s, the county is back where it was in 1964 in one important aspect: There are not enough jobs to pull people out of poverty.

In 1964, about half the county lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census. Today, a third of the population is poor, making the county one of the poorest in the USA. Almost half the residents who are 16 or older receive income from the federal government in some form — food stamps or Social Security, disability or retirement benefits.

"Job creation is the biggie here," says Mike Howell, executive director of the federally funded Big Sandy Area Community Action Program, which serves Martin County. Community action groups were an outgrowth of the war on poverty, created nationwide to help poor families. Howell's group provides job training, heating aid and other services, but he can't offer people the jobs they desperately need.

"You can't get out of poverty," he says, "if you don't have a job."

'WE HAD A ROUGH TIME'

Minzie Stanley doesn't remember her father having a regular job except in the mid- to late 1960s, when he joined the Labor Department's Work Experience and Training Program, better known as the "Happy Pappy" program. It provided paid, on-the-job training for unemployed fathers who would otherwise be eligible for welfare. It was big in eastern Kentucky, where the men cleared roads of trash and dug ditches.

The family received food stamps but also grew corn, beans, beets, potatoes and cucumbers behind their five-room clapboard house. They raised chickens and hogs but butchered them only on special occasions such as Christmas.

"We didn't consider ourselves poor at the time," says Stanley, 55, "but to look back on it, we had a rough time."

When she was 16, she married Len, who went to work as a coal miner. He's been working at the mine ever since. Because of his job, the couple were able to buy a four-bedroom ranch house to raise their children. "Now I have plenty," she says.

Stanley doesn't see the same prospects for her children's generation. Coal is the main industry in town, and the boom that began in the 1970s and brought prosperity to the county is over.

"The jobs are not out there," she says.

Jarrell graduated from community college in 2010 with a certificate in respiratory therapy, hoping the degree would help her find a job in the growing health care industry. But there are no jobs for respiratory therapists in Martin County, and the nearest hospital is 35 minutes away. She says the few hospitals within an hour of her home wanted her to work 12-to-14-hour shifts, which she says she couldn't handle with two young children. She can't move because she shares custody of her children with her ex-husband.

Today, her children are 15 and 12, but her training is out of date.

"I feel like my education is lost," she says. "I spent four-plus years training and studying, and I get to do nothing with it."

Her family gets health care through Medicaid and receives $260 in food stamps every month. "Without the food stamps," she says, "we would not make it."

She's turned to the Community Action Program for help paying utility bills on the trailer, which she warms up during the winter with space heaters. She says the program paid more than $100 on her most recent electric bill, which was $338.

At every turn, her family has been hurt by the dwindling job prospects, she says. Her fiancé, Kyle Jarrell, 43, who is not related to her, was laid off from the mine in December after more than 20 years. He's writing résumés and taking computer classes to find work outside mining.

So far, no luck.

FEW OPTIONS FOR WORK

The unemployment rate in Martin County is close to 11%, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. , compared with the national average of less than 7%. The school district, now as 50 years ago, is the county's largest employer.

There were about 15,000 coal-mining jobs in 2012, the most recent numbers available, in the 20-county region of eastern Kentucky, says Denise Thomas, community and economic development associate with the Big Sandy Area Development District, which includes Martin County. That figure was 45,000 in 1980.

With few options for making a living, poor people in Martin County are increasingly using and selling drugs, even as they collect government checks, longtime residents say.

"After Johnson, the checks came, and people started to get on welfare," says Sheriff Garmon Preece, a onetime miner who was elected the county's top cop 14 years ago. "It's done more harm than good. People stopped selling hogs and chickens. They didn't have to. They went on to depend on their monthly checks."

He says the government benefits hurt young, healthy people by making them dependent. Many use drugs, he says. In Martin County, the painkiller Oxycontin is the drug of choice.

Preece says a 30-milligram pill sells for about $40. He says addicts use their food stamps to buy cases of soda, then sell the soda for cash, which they use to buy drugs.

"The war on poverty was a good idea. ... It had a good heart, but it is an enabler today," he says. "It enables young people today to live that lifestyle."

At a food giveaway by the Huntington Area Food Bank at a church this month, many of the families who went for a box of bread, meat and other basics receive disability checks or other federal assistance.

Olivia Spradlin, 37, says she went to fill her empty cupboard. She receives disability payments because she has Castleman's disease, a rare condition that causes fever and weight loss and, though it is not considered a cancer, is similar to lymphoma. She also gets disability checks for a child with autism, and the family receives food stamps, which she says don't last through the month.

Her husband is an unemployed construction worker with no job on the horizon. Without the government help, she says, her family would be in worse shape.

"A lot of people like us genuinely need the help, but others are just collecting welfare checks, and they ruin it for everybody else," she says.

Even some people with steady jobs make so little, they say they can't maintain their families without help. Sasha St. Clair, 34, is a stay-at-home mom with three children ages 16, 6 and 11 months. Her husband, Lee, earns $32,000 a year as a contractor, cutting trees for the electric company.

The children are eligible for government health insurance, but his salary means they are not eligible for food stamps. So she turns to the pantries.

Born and raised in Martin County, St. Clair says she's ready to get out. "There is nothing in this area," she says. She hopes that within a year, she and her family can buy a house in West Virginia under a federal housing program that helps low-income families with low-interest loans.

Howell, the head of the Community Action Program, says the federal and state governments need to invest more funding and create more programs to help poor people with job training and improve the public schools. Otherwise, he fears, more will flee like the St. Clairs.

"Some say the poverty war was won, but to me the war never stopped," he says. "Poverty did not go away. The war needs to be redeclared."

Contributing: Paul Overberg

Follow me on Twitter: @marisol_bello

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