Sarah has six siblings. Her father is estranged from the family and does not contribute financially. Sarah's mother, Dena Jewell Simental, is often away from home, cleaning houses and caring for the disabled. Supporting her seven children is Dena's "top priority," she says. It's never easy — when the family has received food stamps, they often haven't lasted till the end of the month. Sometimes, when bills go unpaid, the electricity and water are shut off or Dena's phone service is interrupted. But Dena is proud to say, "We are a good family.
"There is a myth in America: if you have a strong moral compass, work hard and make good choices, you will have equal opportunity. But after two years of listening to and documenting low-income families in rural America (for our forthcoming feature-length documentary "Rich Hill"), we have witnessed a starkly unequal playing field.
For many reasons, her story is important but is particularly poignant now because it is 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, an ambitious program which attempted to eradicate poverty in United States. By some measures, income equality peaked sometimes in the 70s and has subsequently declined for decades.
I think at this point in history, we have income inequality to rival the gilded age. Our government seems to be declaring war on the poor themselves, which isn't surprising, given that as a country, we have always vacillated to looking at poverty as a systemic problem vs seeing it as an individual failure.
Many have used this milestone to revisit the problem of poverty in America and return to the places with deep poverty that motivate the government, in the context of a deeply divided country, to tackle the issues of structural poverty. The war on poverty started in rural America, in counties with entrenched poverty and 50 years later, they are still experiencing the same type of hardship that shocked JFK in 1960:
McDowell County, the poorest in West Virginia, has been emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century. John F. Kennedy campaigned here in 1960 and was so appalled that he promised to send help if elected president. His first executive order created the modern food stamp program, whose first recipients were McDowell County residents. When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "unconditional war on poverty" in 1964, it was the squalor of Appalachia he had in mind. The federal programs that followed — Medicare, Medicaid, free school lunches and others — lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living.
But a half-century later, with the poverty rate again on the rise, hardship seems merely to have taken on a new face in McDowell County. The economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.
Fifty years after the war on poverty began, its anniversary is being observed with academic conferences and ideological sparring — often focused, explicitly or implicitly, on the "culture" of poor urban residents. Almost forgotten is how many ways poverty plays out in America, and how much long-term poverty is a rural problem.
Of the 353 most persistently poor counties in the United States — defined by Washington as having had a poverty rate above 20 percent in each of the past three decades — 85 percent are rural. They are clustered in distinct regions: Indian reservations in the West; Hispanic communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas; a band across the Deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority black population; and Appalachia, largely white, which has supplied some of America's iconic imagery of rural poverty since the Depression-era photos of Walker Evans.
McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.
Poverty is more widespread in rural areas than in urban areas with the highest concentrations in the south and with rising rates everywhere. Another other striking measure is the persistence of poverty, which also is highly concentrated in southern rural counties. Persistence of poverty sounds like what it is—simply counties that remain poor over long periods of time, being less responses to national fluctuations in economy. It reflects patterns in certain regions of entrenched and likely generational poverty.:
To shed light on this aspect of poverty, ERS has defined counties as being persistently poor if 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty over the last 30 years (measured by the 1980, 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses and 2007-11 American Community Survey 5-year estimates). Using this definition, there are currently 353 persistently poor counties in the United States (comprising 11.2 percent of all U.S. counties). The large majority (301 or 85.3 percent) of the persistent-poverty counties are nonmetro, accounting for 15.2 percent of all nonmetro counties. Persistent poverty also demonstrates a strong regional pattern, with nearly 84 percent of persistent-poverty counties in the South, comprising of more than 20 percent of all counties in the region.
Finally referencing my own state, which is largely a rural area, especially where I grew up in the economically depressed north interior, some brief points about the rates of rising poverty and the reality that the poverty line as they are currently measured might not be a sufficient measure of economic hardship, as many people above poverty line struggle to meet their basic needs.
Poverty in Maine is higher today than in the deepest part of the last recession in 2001.
- One in every 8 Maine people lives below the "official" poverty line – $17,600 for a family of 3.
- Most now agree that nearly double that amount is needed to make ends meet.
- By this measure, 1 in 3 Maine people don't have sufficient income to meet basic needs.
- Nearly 13% of Maine families don't always have enough food to fully meet their family's basic needs.
- Maine has among the highest rates of food insecurity in the nation, ranking 11th highest.
- Food insecurity in Maine is 43% higher than the average of other New England states.
Poverty is a complex and persistent issue that requires our government to undergo a deep infrastructural change, which seems less and less hopeful given our current political wrangling. But as I think we think about issues around poverty, it is important to continue to examine the complexity of the issues, as it is endemic to our cities and our countrysides. And hopefully one day we can revisit LGB's War on Poverty rather than staying mired in our neoliberal war on the poor.