The Scarred Landscape of West Virginia

To mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, the New York Times has launched a new series dubbed “Caught in Poverty.” For the inaugural article in the series, journalist Trip Gabriel and photographer Travis Dove visited McDowell County, “the poorest in West Virginia…emblematic of entrenched American poverty for more than a half-century.” On visiting McDowell County, what Gabriel and Dove discovered was a place in much the same state as it was before the government intervened with the intent of improving the quality of life some 50 years ago:

Much of McDowell County looks like a rural Detroit, with broken windows on shuttered businesses and homes crumbling from neglect. In many places, little seems to have been built or maintained in decades. Numbers tell the tale as vividly as the scarred landscape. Forty-six percent of children in the county do not live with a biological parent, according to the school district. Their mothers and fathers are in jail, are dead or have left them to be raised by relatives, said Gordon Lambert, president of the McDowell County Commission. Beginning in the 19th century, the rugged region produced more coal than any other county in West Virginia, but it got almost none of the wealth back as local investment. Of West Virginia’s 55 counties, McDowell has the lowest median household income, $22,000; the worst childhood obesity rate; and the highest teenage birthrate.

The situation in McDowell County, of course, is one that runs through much of Appalachia. Gabriel’s observations on the reality faced by McDowell County, however, are the most pointed: “McDowell County is in some ways a place truly left behind, from which the educated few have fled, leaving almost no shreds of prosperity. But in a nation with more than 46 million people living below the poverty line — 15 percent of the population — it is also a sobering reminder of how much remains broken, in drearily familiar ways and utterly unexpected ones, 50 years on.”

The fact that these “broken” conditions have dogged West Virginians for decades, even in the wake of government intervention, is proof that addressing entrenched poverty is no simple feat. It also doesn’t help to consider that America’s middle class is faltering, a growing concern that even more may soon slip into poverty. In essence, no one in the country is that far removed from living with less, or worse, living with nothing.

(Photograph: Travis Dove/The New York Times. Caption: John Campbell, in the coffee shop his family runs in War, worked as a miner for 40 years beside five brothers, and can remember when the area was thriving.)