Roger Luster was 11 years old when John F. Kennedy came calling. In the blue-haze stillness of the hills, the clatter of his campaign attracted a dozen persons who stood in the yard and watched. Kennedy climbed the bare, wooden steps. Roger’s family asked him in.
He’d been to Slab Fork and Mullens and Welch and Keystone. He’d turned off at Eckman and taken a winding road, black and tan with dirt and coal dust, and he’d followed it up into Eureka Hollow. And now Kennedy, running in the 1960 West Virginia primary, sat in the living room, and Roger’s mother, Betty, offered him coffee. It was about all they had.
Burley and Betty Luster, son Roger and seven other children lived in four rooms: one-half of a weathered house, so faded that its yellow was less paint than memory. Another family lived in the other half. The house squatted in a clearing halfway up the hollow, in the heart of Appalachia. For 45 minutes, Kennedy asked questions: How did Burley and Betty and their children survive in these hills? The answers were heart-rending.
Roger’s father had been hurt running a coal drill. He couldn’t work. He got a government check, but it wasn’t much. When the kids ate, it was beans and potatoes and water gravy. When they went to school, lunch was biscuits and jelly in a paper sack. Sometimes Roger was too embarrassed about it to eat. And he was ashamed of his shoes. They had been given to him, and they were nearly three sizes too big. For two months once, Burley and Betty Luster had kept their kids out of school because they had no decent clothes. Sometimes Roger and his brothers and sisters went to bed hungry.
Much of Kennedy’s clatter was television: cameras, producers, correspondents. They turned out to be the most important thing about his campaign. On TV, families like the Lusters awakened the nation’s conscience to poverty in the midst of plenty. Kennedy pledged: “If I’m nominated and elected President, within 60 days of the start of my Administration I will introduce a program to Congress for aid to West Virginia.” Kennedy’s program was the opening shot in a war against poverty that his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, mounted all across America, from these white-poor hollows of Appalachia to the black-poor ghettos of Los Angeles. Together with a strong economy, Johnson’s war helped cut the poverty rate to 11.1% of the population, the lowest level on record.
But during the mid-1970s the economy began to slump. Unemployment rose. The poverty rate started to climb. At the same time, Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter allowed the after-inflation value of anti-poverty aid to decline. And since then, despite the increase in poverty, President Reagan has cut the anti-poverty budget. Today, the percentage of poor Americans is the highest since 1965, the year after Johnson declared his war on poverty. By the most recent federal count, a Census Bureau tally in 1983, the poverty rate stands at 15.2% of the population. This means there are 35.3 million poor--or an increase of about 11 million since as recently as 1978. One in every seven Americans is poor. Without government assistance, another 20.8 million Americans would be poor. That totals 56.1 million people--or nearly a quarter of the population.
Worse, the poor are getting poorer. In 1968, the poorest fifth of all families had 91% of the money they needed for basic requirements, according to congressional researchers. By 1983, these researchers say, they had only 60%. The poor are women: More than 60% of all impoverished adults are women. The poor are children: A quarter of all children under 6 live in poverty; indeed, half the black children in America are poor. The poor are minorities: The poverty rate among blacks in general is nearly triple what it is among whites; among Latinos, the poverty rate is twice the Anglo rate. Most of the poor stay in poverty only a few years. But some remain poor much longer. While these are fewer, their impact is surprisingly large. They are an underclass of street-corner men, welfare-dependent women, delinquents and criminals--those hard-core poor left behind in the ghetto after the war on poverty helped others move up and out.
Effect of recovery
Most experts think the poverty rate will go down when the figure for 1984 is made public next month. They believe that recovery from the most recent recession will have gone on long enough for its effect to be felt. Because of this Reagan recovery, jobs should now be available for many of those who were thrown out of work--and this ought to counteract some of the effects of the President’s anti-poverty cuts. However, many of these economic experts think the unemployment rate will level off at a high plateau, between 7% and 7.5%. Although some expect the poverty rate to continue to drop, most economists think that it will mirror the unemployment rate and level off at a high plateau--near 13% for the foreseeable future.
But people who are poor have one abiding hope: Americans are not pleased about the lot of the impoverished. A national poll by The Times shows that the public has an enormous sympathy for the poor. More than three-quarters of the public think poverty is the proper concern of the federal government and that there must be substantial government involvement in efforts to ease it. At the same time, Americans have doubts about the government’s expertise. Most feel the government has not been effective in its battles against poverty because it does not know what to do about it. But most Americans want their government to take action--and they do not like Reagan’s cuts in anti-poverty programs.
From the very outset, the President has spelled out exactly why he thinks these cuts have been necessary. “We’ve lived beyond our means and then financed our extravagance on the backs of the American people,” Reagan said during his first news conference after taking his oath of office. “We think the time has come where there has to be a change of direction. . . . And it’s going to begin with reducing government spending.” He subsequently said his reductions would be made in social spending and not from the military budget because “government’s first responsibility is national security.”
David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget and the chief architect of Reagan’s cuts, declined to be interviewed for this story, the first in a five-part series on poverty in America. However, Stockman has said in congressional testimony that the cuts have improved incentives for the poor to better themselves--and, at the same time, targeted aid to the “truly needy” and reduced or eliminated aid to those who are not poor.
He has denied that Reagan’s policies have been too harsh, or that government programs for the poorest of the poor have been damaged, much less destroyed. “The poor are still being helped impressively,” he declared. “The rich are still helping to pay for the safety net on which the less fortunate depend.”
It has been 25 years now since John Kennedy came to Eureka Hollow. Roger Luster is 36, a husky man in jeans, an old shirt and a tractor cap. His wife, Doris, is 23. She goes by Dobie and wears brown cords and a blue shirt. She carries the youngest of their three children on her hip. All are boys: Jesse is 5, Tony 3 and Timmy 1. They live down the hollow a piece from where Roger grew up. His old yellow house has been torn down--to make room for graves that had to be moved when the coal company strip-mined the cemetery. Today Roger lives in a wooden five-room house with a sagging black tar-paper roof. Its faded white walls are cracking, and the green trim on the windows is chipping. He pays $15 rent.
He dropped out of school two years after Kennedy’s visit and went to work at 16. He held several jobs until three years ago, when coal mining slumped and he got laid off. Roger went on welfare. West Virginia makes recipients work for their checks. It calls its program “workfare.” Roger gets $360 a month--and is required to be a garbage man in the nearby town of Keystone. He works 10 days to earn his welfare check. He gets $25 for gasoline to drive to town--and $270 worth of food stamps. His cash income, $4,320 a year, puts him $8,240 below the poverty line--a threshold the government uses to define poverty for a family his size.
No phone, no washer
He has no phone; he can’t afford one. Water runs into the house through a rubber hose. Dobie heats it on the stove. Gravity fills the toilet, but there is not enough pressure for a washer--even if he could afford one. Dobie uses a machine with a wringer--and two iron tubs, one pitted with rust. “You take a woman that does that stuff, and she don’t ever get nothing--it’s rough like that, see,” Roger said one afternoon not long ago, during a break on the garbage truck. He stared down at his boots. “She has it rough.”
So does he. “I own a ’74 Plymouth. Thing needs a clutch. I’ll ride it as long as it’ll ride, and that’ll be it.”
In the winter, when there is a foot of snow and it’s 22 degrees below zero, the wind blows through his house as if the walls weren’t there. In a sense, they’re not. The house has no insulation. “You got weatherboard on the outside and the same old weatherboard on the inside. Strips. Some places the strips hook together and some don’t, and then when the wind blows, it just comes right on in.”
Come the snow, Roger drags a bed into the living room next to the wood and coal stove. He, Dobie and the three boys climb in, so the youngsters don’t freeze. Roger stays awake all night to keep the fire burning and to keep an eye on the stove and the chimney.
“You’ve got to stay awake, or you’ll burn down, and that’s just the way it is, see. If it’s down below zero weather, you don’t know how hot you’re really getting the stove, because the house is that cold. And the stove will turn red on you. If it goes and turns red on you, you’ve got to get it cooled down, because it’ll burn the house down. I’ve dozed off and had it turn red on me before and had to jump up and get it real fast, you know. My brother had his house burn down on account of that.”
Jesse, the 5-year-old, goes to kindergarten this September. Workfare provides an extra allowance for school clothes. If it doesn’t cover everything Jesse needs, Dobie will let the rent or maybe the light bill go unpaid to buy him pants and shirts. Then she’ll scramble through October and November to catch up. Whatever it takes, though, Roger will be certain the kids get something for Christmas.
“That’s only once a year,” he said, “and they’re little.”
Jesse’s front teeth have rotted out. Roger thinks it might be a calcium deficiency. Medical care that comes with workfare covers dentists, but case workers say that Roger needs special authorization because Jesse’s problem is so severe. The family will wait until his adult teeth grow in. If they rot and the state denies coverage, Roger has no idea what he’ll do. “I’ll never get the money myself.”
After the first of the month, when Roger gets his welfare check, and after the 12th, when he gets his food stamps, Dobie cooks spaghetti and hamburger and even steak now and then. But toward the end of the month, things run out. Then Dobie makes beans and potatoes. “She runs out of bread, and then she’s got to make it. And we eat a whole lot of gravy at the end of the month. But it ain’t water gravy, that’s one good thing.” Sometimes everything runs out. Then Roger tries to borrow a little money from friends and kin. When he can’t get Winstons, he buys a tin of Prince Albert and some cigarette papers. He gets the Prince Albert for 99 cents and the papers for 35 cents, and he has learned to roll cigarettes thin enough to make as many as three packs. “I’ve run out. Had to borrow Prince Albert off my brother-in-law.”
A couple of weeks later, his work on the garbage truck finished for the month, Roger sat and talked in the living room of his house. On a shelf are plastic roses and a bust of Jesus. Dobie’s paisley wallpaper is peeling. The embarrassment of poverty is considerable, he said. “People look down on you. You’re on welfare, and they figure you’re freeloading, that you’re getting something for nothing. And they don’t think that it’s right. Sometimes they’ll joke around and carry on and stuff like that. You don’t like it. But you ain’t going to say a lot about it, because it might be one of your friends that’s joking with you.
“I’d rather have a job and be working. I guess everybody would. If you see somebody working in the mines, you know, they got money or something, you know, and they go buy their kids something, and you can’t--that’s hard, stuff like that. It’s just rough. Or my wife. Working in a mine or something, you could go buy her something. And stuff like that’s real rough.
“She gets after me sometimes. You know, just that she ain’t got no money to buy stuff which other people get and stuff like that, see. It’s aggravating. What can I do about it? I mean, what am I going to do? Ain’t nothing--I can’t--you can’t up and leave to go somewhere where you ain’t got nowhere to stay or nothing, you ain’t got no money to leave with.”
Roger doesn’t say much to Dobie about it, but he has an overwhelming worry. “It ending. Something happening, you know, where they shut the program off or something like that, then not knowing how to feed your kids or nothing, see. Reagan stopping it all. And then how would you ever feed the kids? I worry about that. See, a lot of people get onto the program and they think it’s going to last forever. But you know, something might happen to shut it down, and I don’t know what a man would do. That’s what worries me about programs like this, where if you had a job, see, you’d have a little bit of security.
“Why shouldn’t he feed us? We’re here. I paid taxes--I paid taxes for 16 years where I worked, paid in taxes, you know, to feed people, so I don’t understand. He shouldn’t cut it out on us, should he? We’d be ruined. I don’t know what we’d do. There ain’t nothing else. Ain’t going to find a job here. I don’t want to be on the program, but you have to be on it because there’s no choice. You got to feed your family.”
There are other signs of desperation.
People in Eureka Hollow get their mail at the post office in Eckman. Last winter, someone broke into the old brass mail boxes.
Whoever did it stole food stamps.
Roger Luster’s fears are fed by his memories of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. It went into retreat because Vietnam consumed resources and because local politicians felt threatened by Johnson’s efforts to help the poor organize to gain political power. And now anti-poverty programs are in retreat again, this time for other reasons.
Americans are weary and wary. First, they are weary of the battle against poverty.
The Times poll, which surveyed 2,446 persons across the nation this April, showed that an overwhelming 89% think poverty will always be a major problem. Even among the poor, there is little hope that poverty will ever be wiped out. Respondents with incomes that make them officially poor think, by an 85% margin, that there always will be poor people in the United States--regardless of what anyone does.
Second, Americans are wary of the government’s ability to do much about poverty.
The problem, they are convinced, is that the government, regardless of how competent it might be at other things, is simply incapable of dealing with poverty. Even if the government were willing to spend whatever is needed, 70% of Americans polled by The Times think that federal agencies do not know enough about poverty to end it. The taste for fighting poverty, clearly, has fallen to frustration.
More than half of the public thinks anti-poverty programs seldom work. More than half of the poor themselves are similarly convinced. About 39% of the public thinks anti-poverty money is spent on useless projects, and 42% thinks the money is intercepted and never gets to the poor people who need it.
One of the respondents to the poll was Paul Brinker, 24, a market researcher in Cleveland. He makes between $50,000 and $75,000 a year and lives in a middle-class neighborhood. To him, there is a built-in futility to the effort.
“Basically,” he said, “I just don’t think society has the will nor the resources or the ability to redistribute resources so that there isn’t always a percentage of the population that’s considered to be poor. I think society is designed in that fashion. I do not think this has to do with politicians or with what happened with the war on poverty.
“As I’ve learned more about the way society works, I’ve found that people with the most power have resources to employ to their best interest. And they have the ability to retain as much of their resources as possible. Those who have, they’ll use a small percentage of what they’ve got to hold onto the rest. But those who don’t have many resources, the poor, they do not have the resources to change the status quo or to hold onto what they’ve got.”
Another respondent, Bob Rosenthal, 38, who works for the New York City Department of Finance, has decided that part of the problem is “the bureaucracies that dispense money. They eat a lot of money.” Rosenthal, who earns between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, owns a brownstone near impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant. “I see people walking the streets, looking for cans to pick up for a nickel deposit.
“If we had a social system that worked, they wouldn’t be.”
Because Americans like Brinker and Rosenthal are weary and wary, the political climate seems perfect for those who want to relegate the battle against poverty to the bottom of the public agenda. Since the public perceives the fight to be expensive, onerous and unwinnable, President Reagan, never a champion of social spending, seems at first glance to have acted within the temper of the times.
Congress resisted cuts
His cuts in the nation’s anti-poverty programs have been numerous and deep. In many cases, the cuts would have been deeper if Congress hadn’t resisted.
A study by economists D. Lee Bawden and John L. Palmer for the Urban Institute, a nonprofit Washington research organization that specializes in social problems and government policy, lists Reagan reductions through fiscal 1984 and their estimated impact on outlays in fiscal 1985. Among them are these:
--In Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), outlays down 14.3% from a projected $9.8 billion. Reagan wanted to cut them 28.6%.
--Food stamps, down 13.8% from $14.5 billion. Reagan wanted to cut them 51.7%.
These reductions, including those in the accompanying chart, are measured against outlays that would have been made had pre-Reagan policies been continued. In some instances, growth rates caused programs to expand even after the cuts, although less so than otherwise. In other instances, the Reagan cuts were large enough to cause actual reductions in the money spent. Most of the continued growth has been in programs with big budgets. However, about half the programs listed have had their spending actually reduced.
Stockman defends trims
In his congressional testimony, Stockman, the President’s budget director, conceded that many social programs have been pared--but insisted that the effect was to “improve the targeting” of federal aid and that “these reforms do not reflect the picture of devastation critics have charged.”
Bawden and Palmer agree with Stockman that the Reagan cuts have removed most of the least needy from the welfare rolls and targeted program benefits on the poor. “But, Administration claims to the contrary, there is also no question that the poor are not better off as a result,” they said. “The Administration has suggested that benefits were retargeted on the poor, implying that aid was taken from the less needy and given to the more needy. In fact, this is not the case.
“In no entitlement programs were real (inflation-adjusted) benefits increased for the most needy when eligibility levels were reduced.”
Only a few organizations lobby on behalf of the poor. The impoverished have little political clout. In the face of the Reagan cuts, they have been largely defenseless. And the Reagan reductions have been painful: While the Reagan cuts have removed higher-income recipients from eligibility for aid, they also have reduced the benefits received by people who remain eligible.
Indeed, politicians are much more reluctant to cut programs that include benefits for middle income people as well as the poor, such as Social Security and Medicare. As a result, these programs suffered less under the Reagan cuts.
The Urban Institute lists these consequences of the Reagan reductions:
--Between 400,000 and 500,000 families have been taken off Aid to Families with Dependent Children. An additional 300,000 have had their checks reduced on average between $150 and $200 a month. About 1 million fewer disadvantaged children are getting help through compensatory education. Some 400,000 people have lost their public service jobs. Another 1 million persons have lost their food stamps; almost everyone who still gets them receives fewer.
--About 1 million fewer families get housing aid and about 300,000 more will be living in substandard housing by the end of this year. Milk programs have ended at many schools; summer feeding programs are limited to the highest-poverty areas. Unemployment insurance runs out more quickly than before, stranding hundreds of thousands of recession-displaced workers with nowhere to turn but the dole.
These consequences, too, are measured against what would have occurred had pre-Reagan policies been continued. By and large, the poor who are the most dependent upon government aid have been affected only modestly. But if Reagan had gotten cuts of the size he requested, consequences for these poorest of the poor would have been more severe.
The public perceives these cuts as a blemish on the Reagan presidency.
Deep public sympathy
The Times poll shows deep public sympathy for the impoverished. Half the respondents describe most poor people as hardworking. Only a quarter thinks they are lazy. By two to one, the public rejects the view that the poor have less in-born ability and find themselves in poverty because of some innate defect--in character, for instance, or intelligence.
Despite their misgivings about the way the government has tried to help the poor so far, Americans believe firmly that federal agencies ought to mount an expanded effort. The Times survey shows that an overwhelming 73% of the public favors government action on behalf of the impoverished.
A majority, 57%, even say they would pay a 1% federal sales tax to help finance the effort.
Moreover, the poll shows a deep disapproval of Reagan’s cuts in anti-poverty programs. Despite an overall 2-1 positive job rating, the public gives Reagan a 58% to 34% negative rating for his treatment of the poor.
Half the public thinks Reagan’s budget cuts have left the truly needy unprotected. Most believe he cares more about rich people. Only 2% of the survey respondents think Reagan cares more about the poor.
Response is typical
Mary Camp, 45, a high school counselor in Gadsden, Ala., is typical. “We as the American people do care about our fellow man,” she said. “I don’t want to get maudlin or mushy, but I do think that we care. I grew up in a hardworking, fairly poor and very proud family. And my mother and father sacrificed, really sacrificed to give me an education. Later my father got a higher paid job. But when I went to school in my early years, they struggled to have food on the table and good clothes. We had no luxuries. And that is probably why I can relate to these people and know where they come from.
“Because of my opportunities--my parents’ giving and providing me with an education--I’ve been able to live a comfortable life.” Camp makes between $10,000 and $20,000 annually. She lives in an attractive neighborhood of private homes and trimmed lawns.
“But,” she said, “a lot of people just don’t have these opportunities.
“As a general rule, the poor are hardworking and really want to be self-sufficient. But from things I’ve read in the newspaper and seen on TV, it really seems that Reagan cares more for the rich and big business than for the little man. If he had it his way, Social Security and the other social programs would be eliminated--or at least changed.”
Not technically poor
Unlike Mary Camp, Rob Green is poor--not technically poor, but poor in fact.
Like Roger Luster, he lives in West Virginia. But the two aren’t neighbors. Green, 75, lives farther north, up in Dawes Hollow, off Cabin Creek, only half an hour from Charleston, the biggest city in the state.
Rob has been retired for 13 years. He and his wife, Mary, also in her 70s, are people the government calls the near poor. They get $149 a month in Social Security, and Rob receives an additional $492 a month in black lung benefits. That totals $7,962 a year, which places them $1,682 above the poverty line.
However, for the Greens it’s a distinction without difference.
They live on potatoes, beans, a little bacon, a few onions, wild poke greens and some Shawnee, a Virginia waterleaf they pick in the hills. They get eggs from their chickens, and they sell a few eggs to make a little extra money. It has been two years since they’ve had enough money to buy clothes. Last winter, they ran out of coal. Because they’re both too old to dig their own, they tried to buy some. But they couldn’t get anyone to haul it home for them, so they cut some wood. It burned out the fire bricks in the stove. Now they need a new stove.
House needs repairs
Their tar-papered house needs a roof. It could use plumbing. Their bathroom is an outhouse. For baths, Mary gets water from a pipe that brings it from a spring near the house, and she heats it on a propane burner.
Rob Green suffered a stroke a few months ago. A blind son, who lives next door and makes his way over by following a clothesline, looks after his folks as best he can. But he’s barely getting by himself. And Rob and Mary Green need help. They have given up getting more money from the government.
“They’re not for the poor man,” he said, watching the world from his front porch. “They just for themselves. They’re cutting the budget and cutting the budget, but they ain’t cutting their wages. Unh nunh. They don’t cut their wages. Yeah, but they’re going to cut our checks, I reckon.”
For a poor man like Rob Green, that and another cold winter could make all the difference.
This article is first in the series “America and Its Poor.”
Times researcher Nina Green contributed to this story.