Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reporter visits heart of one of Appalachia's poorest regions, finds some people living rich lives

President Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson meet the Fletcher
family of Martin County in 1964 (Bettman/Corbis photo)
When reporters go looking for a story on impoverished America, highlighted most recently by the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty declaration, they often end up in Martin County, Ky. That's where NPR reporter Pam Fessler found herself on her journey to report on poverty. But while Fessler saw plenty of poverty on her visit to Eastern Kentucky, she found something more than just poor, uneducated people struggling to survive. She found plenty of pride and a wealth of richness, even if those people didn't have the monetary figures to match the way they lived their lives and felt about their community.

Michelle Harless, a high-school guidance counselor, told Fessler, "I just ask when you portray us, please don't portray us as ignorant hill folk, I guess. Because we are educated. We're poor, but we're educated, and everyone's pretty proud. It's not a desolate place where no hope can be found." Fessler found "well-paved roads, cheerful schools, beautiful mountains—albeit some have been strip-mined. And yes, there are trailers surrounded by trash, but also tidy suburban homes."

"More than a third of the residents here are poor, but poverty is also in the eye of the beholder," Fessler writes. "Many people here say they're rich in things that aren't included in any official measure of poverty. Things like family and faith. So they're understandably a bit bitter about how they're often seen from the outside." Owen Wright of the Christian Appalachian Project told Fessler, "We're probably one of the last few groups that it's still politically correct to make fun of. It's still OK to tell, you know, hillbilly, redneck jokes. Once that's been drilled into them for so long, it's easy for them to start believing that themselves."

While the War on Poverty opened America's eyes to unknown destitution, some in Eastern Kentucky say it also forever labeled the area as being the symbol of impoverished America, Fessler writes. Lee Mueller, a retired Lexington Herald-Leader reporter who witnessed Johnson's visit to his home Martin County, told Fessler, "We knew the region was poor, but there wasn't a stigma to it—to us. And we were surprised when we went someplace and found out that other people thought we were." Fessler writes: "But that was a long time ago. Today, the stigma is very real and for some people, almost as bad as the poverty itself." (Read more)

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