Appalachian War on Poverty and the Working Class
- Jessica WilkersonJessica WilkersonUniversity of Mississippi
In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced an unconditional “war on poverty.” On one of his first publicity tours promoting his antipoverty legislation, he traveled to cities and towns in Appalachia, which would become crucial areas for promoting and implementing the legislation. Johnson soon signed the Economic Opportunity Act, a piece of legislation that provided a structure for communities to institute antipoverty programs, from vocational services to early childhood education programs, and encouraged the creation of new initiatives. In 1965, Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act, making Appalachia the only region targeted by federal antipoverty legislation, through the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Appalachian War on Poverty can be described as a set of policies created by governmental agencies, but also crucial to it was a series of community movements and campaigns, led by working-class people, that responded to antipoverty policies.
When the War on Poverty began, the language of policymakers suggested that people living below the poverty line would be served by the programs. But as the antipoverty programs expanded and more local people became involved, they spoke openly and in political terms about poverty as a working-class issue. They drew attention to the politics of class in the region, where elites and absentee landowners became wealthy on the backs of working people. They demanded meaningful participation in shaping the War on Poverty in their communities, and, increasingly, when they used the term “poor people,” they did so as a collective class identity—working people who were poor due to a rigged economy.
While many public officials focused on economic development policies, men and women living in the region began organizing around issues ranging from surface mining to labor rights and responding to poor living and working conditions. Taking advantage of federal antipoverty resources and the spirit of change that animated the 1960s, working-class Appalachians would help to shape the antipoverty programs at the local and regional level, creating a movement in the process. They did so as they organized around issues—including the environment, occupational safety, health, and welfare rights—and as they used antipoverty programs as a platform to address the systemic inequalities that plagued many of their communities.