Fighting poverty: Numbers reveal some progress

The number of Americans living below the poverty threshold has increased by more than 10 million since President Lyndon B. Johnson first announced his crusade against poverty 50 years ago this month.

At the same time, the percentage of Americans living in poverty has ebbed and flowed but has ultimately dropped-from around 19 percent in 1964 to around 15 percent in 2012, the most recent census numbers available.

State and local numbers tend to closely mirror national numbers with poverty levels steadily dipping in the 1960s and 1970s, rising in the 1980s, dipping in the 1990s, and gradually rising again since 2000.

Today about 15.6 percent of Washington County residents live in poverty, above both the state level of 15.4 percent and national level of 14.9 percent.

A variety of things have contributed to the continually changing poverty rate. The creation and then decrease in funding of assistance programs created by the “war on poverty” bill, business boons and busts, and the international energy and job market have all helped and hindered poverty rates.

While the effect created by assistance programs is widely debated, it is undeniable that several programs introduced in the 1960s played a huge role in the declining poverty rate in that decade, said Philip Cole, executive director of the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies.

The percentage of Americans living in poverty decreased by 60 percent throughout the 1960s, according to the United States Census Bureau.

“That accounts for the funding of the War on Poverty. The War on Poverty started and was adequately funded at first,” said Cole.

Some areas, such as Appalachia, have received more assistance than others. The establishment of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) in 1965 has meant Appalachian counties in 13 states have benefited from extra funding for economic development.

While both the national and Ohio poverty level decreased by around 60 percent in the 1960s, Washington County’s poverty level decreased by 88 percent.

The drastic drop brought the county on equal footing with the national poverty level-13.7 percent, but still fairly higher than the 10 percent state poverty level for 1969.

Appalachia has historically struggled with significantly higher poverty numbers and continues to do so, explained Bret Allphin, development director for Buckeye Hills-Hocking Regional Development District (BHHRDD), which administers funding for the ARC.

“I think we’ve gotten more (assistance), so our area has benefited more. But we’re still not keeping up. It goes to illustrate how serious and deep poverty is in Appalachia,” he said.

For example, the Ohio poverty level in 2000 was 10.6 percent. The Appalachian Ohio poverty level was 13 percent.

Of Ohio’s 88 counties, nine had a poverty rate above 20 percent, according to the 2007-2001 American Community Survey. All nine of those counties were in Appalachia. Conversely, only one of the 12 counties with a poverty rate below 10 percent was in Appalachia.

West Virginia, which falls entirely in Appalachia, still has a statewide poverty level hovering around 19 percent-just one percentage point lower than the national average in 1964.

Appalachia is rich in extractable resources, but that does not necessarily equate to regional wealth, explained Allphin.

“People have come and extracted goods, wealth, services, leaving us to deal with the economic ramifications. We’ve been in this boom and bust cycle and we’ve never really broken it,” he said.

Appalachia’s lack of infrastructure makes it difficult to draw business and long-lasting economic opportunities to the area, said Allphin. Buckeye Hills attempts to address those issues in part by funding better infrastructure and working toward diversifying local economics, he said.

Additionally, cultural problems can affect the workforce. Employability issues experienced everywhere seem amplified in the limited Appalachian workforce, said Allphin.

“We have massive workforce issues…You add on top of that folks that have drug problems, and chronic tardiness, and (lack of) professional demeanor. While every place has those issues, it just amplifies the impact locally,” he said.

The area has not always lacked a lucrative industrial economy. On top of the start of many social programs, the heavy industrial manufacturing industry was a big boon to local and state economy in the 1950s and 1960s.

A plethora of plants along Ohio 7 were doing big business in those decades and into the 1970s, said Charlotte Keim, president and CEO of the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce.

“In the 50s or 60s is when a lot of those plants were either built or expanded,” said Keim.

Kraton Polymers joined the chamber in 1962, bringing a lot of ancillary business into the area. At their peak, many area heavy industrial plants offered hundreds of good-paying jobs.

Then in the 1980s, several things started happening.

“There was a big movement to move companies out of the U.S., and we had a real decline in income,” said Cole.

At the same time, plants like those along Ohio 7 became more and more automated, added Keim.

The United States, Ohio and Washington County all saw their poverty levels rise in the 1980s. The numbers all dipped again slightly in the 1990s, but today the nation, state, and county all have higher poverty rates than they did in 1989.

Many, like Cole, cite job growth as one of the biggest potential solutions.

“We need to come up with incentives for companies to hire. I think it was in 1961 that (President John F.) Kennedy made a trip to West Virginia to talk about the need to replace jobs gotten rid of by automation. We still need to talk about that,” he said.

Tom Ballengee, director of Washington County Job and Family Services, agreed.

“The industry is still there, you just don’t need all the people to do the same type of job. And the jobs have gotten so specific. A lot of these companies are looking for people with more training, education and background, ” he said.