Thursday, November 05, 2009

A perspective on LBJ's launch of the 'War on Poverty'

We thought this was a good perspective on a piece of American history. From West Virginia's State Journal we find this interview with Barbara Bayes, a woman who has spent a lifetime helping the poor in the Appalachian Mountains. The interview focuses on the start of the "War on Poverty" when President Lyndon Johnson created programs to try to help the poor.

Writer Christine Miller Ford had Bayes recall when college aged strangers arrived to Appalachia in the 1960's.

Growing up in eastern Kentucky, 60-year-old Bayes got her first glimpse of LBJ’s anti-poverty initiative when she and fellow teens began to spot Volunteers In Service To America, or VISTA, workers in their community.

“We started noticing these young college kids coming around who didn’t talk like us or look like us,” said Bayes, a lifelong social worker who heads the Good News Mountaineer Garage, the statewide program that provides motor vehicles to low-income West Virginians. “They’d come through asking for directions, and we loved to send them off the wrong way. Our reaction was, ‘Who are you to look down on us because we’re different? Because we have an outhouse?’”

But with each repaired roof, free meal program and other project completed by the young people involved in the VISTA program — a domestic version of the Peace Corps created through Johnson’s Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 — Bayes said she and her neighbors began to see these visitors in a new light.

“We saw how much good they were doing for people who were really struggling,” she said.

Now thanks to the range of programs begun with the War on Poverty and Johnson’s Great Society, low-income citizens, seniors and others can live more dignified lives, Bayes said.

“So many of the programs begun in the 1960s have become so integrated into society that we don’t think about what life would be like without them,” said Bayes, who has lived in Charleston since 1984. “But before the War on Poverty, there was no mechanism for low-income senior citizens to have nursing home care paid for. Grants and loans weren’t available for low-income students to go to college. No job training for a displaced homemaker trying to get back on her feet. No legal aid for a woman trying to leave an abusive marriage. No money for winterizing an elderly person’s home for fuel efficiency. It’s a long, long list.”

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