Tom Fletcher speaks with President Johnson on his front porch in Martin County, Kentucky in 1964.  LBJ used the visit to launch his “War on Poverty.”  (Louisville Courier-Journal)

Fifty years into our War on Poverty, National Review has a superb article by one of their best writers, Kevin Williamson.  He paid a recent visit to Appalachia, a region mired in misery and despair decades before Lyndon Johnson sat on Tom Fletcher’s front porch and launched his ill-fated crusade to eliminate poverty, once and for all.

Six decades later, Mr. Williamson found that little has changed.  A few excerpts:

“If you go looking for the catastrophe that laid this area low, you’ll eventually discover a terrifying story: Nothing happened. It’s not like this was a company town in which the business around which life was organized went toes-up. Booneville and Owsley County were never economic powerhouses. They were sustained for a time in part by a nearby Midsouth plant, which manufactured consumer electronics such as steam irons and toaster ovens, as well as industrial supplies such as refrigerator parts. A former employee estimates that a majority of Owsley County households owed part of their income to Midsouth at one time or another, until a mishap in the sanding room put an end to that: “Those shavings are just like coal dust,” he says. “It will go right up if it gets a spark.” Operations were consolidated in a different facility, a familiar refrain here — a local branch of the health department consolidated operations in a different town, along with the energy company and others. But Owsley County was poor before, during, and after that period. Coal mining was for years a bulwark against utter economic ruination, but regulation, a lengthy permitting process, and other factors both economic and geological pushed what remains of the region’s coal business away toward other communities. After they spend a winter or two driving an hour or two each way over icy twists of unforgiving mountain asphalt, many locals working in the coal business decide it is easier to move to where the work is, leaving Owsley County, where unemployment already is 150 percent of the national average, a little more desperate and collectively jobless than before. 
A few locals drive two hours — on a good day, more on others — to report for work in the Toyota factory at Georgetown, Ky., which means driving all the way through the Daniel Boone National Forest and through the city of Lexington to reach the suburbs on the far side. As with the coal miners traveling past Hazard or even farther, eventually many of those Toyota workers decide that the suburbs of Lexington are about as far as they want to go. The employed and upwardly mobile leave, taking their children, their capital, and their habits with them, clean clear of the Big White Ghetto, while the unemployed, the dependent, and the addicted are once again left behind.

“We worked before,” the former Midsouth man says, “We’d work again.”

And for those left behind, the raft of LBJ’s social programs keeps them afloat, but little more.  Supplementing government checks means cashing in on those benefits–quite literally:

“It works like this: Once a month, the debit-card accounts of those receiving what we still call food stamps are credited with a few hundred dollars — about $500 for a family of four, on average — which are immediately converted into a unit of exchange, in this case cases of soda. On the day when accounts are credited, local establishments accepting EBT cards — and all across the Big White Ghetto, “We Accept Food Stamps” is the new ‘E pluribus unum’–are swamped with locals using their public benefits to buy cases and cases–reports put the number at 30 to 40 cases for some buyers–of soda.  Those cases of soda then go on to another retailer, who buys them at 50 cents on the dollars, in effect laundering those $500 in monthy benefits to $250 in cash–a considerably worse rate they your typical organized crime money launderer offers–or else they go into the local black-market economy, where they can be used as currency in such ventures as the dealing of unauthorized prescripton painkillers–by “pillbillies” as they are known at sympathetic establishements in Florida. 

A woman who is intimately familiar with the local drug economy suggests the exchange reate between sexual favors and cases of pop–some dealers will accept either–is about 1:1, meaning the value of a woman in the local prescription drug economy is about $12.99, at local Wal-Mart prices. 

Read the whole thing: it’s first class journalism that aptly summarizes why the War on Poverty was doomed to fail, almost from the moment LBJ sat on Tom Fletcher’s front porch. Programs that eliminate the need for entry-level work; make two-parent families superfluous and measure education outcome in the number of school lunches served do nothing more than create a permanent underclass–and a very reliable voting bloc. 

One more thing: as you might expect, the media generally lost interest in Mr. Fletcher after the President’s visit in 1964, but Allen Breed of the Associated Press tracked him down 30 years later.  Fletcher reported that his last “regular” employement ended in 1969, after completing a federal training program and suffering a broken leg.  At the time of the interview, Mr. Fletcher was getting by on a $284-a-month disability check.  His second wife had been sentenced to prison two years earlier, for poisoning two of their young children with overdoses of Darvon, a powerful pain-killer (Tom Fletcher was exonerated in the matter).

Asked why he had never been able to break out of poverty, Mr. Fletcher told the AP “I don’t know.”  

But the rest of us do.  And our collective refusal to confront with those realities are one reason the U.S. has spent $1 trillion fighting poverty and has damn little to show for it.