The Valley of Poverty, 50 Years Later

This coming January marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, a milestone pointed out to me by photographer Stacy Kranitz in an interview that I’m currently working on. Kranitz’ work, which is particularly focused on photographing the people of Appalachia, is threaded with the omnipresence of poverty in her subjects’ lives. What’s perhaps most striking about poverty in Appalachia is its prolonged lifespan. When LBJ first introduced the phrase “War on Poverty” in his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, Appalachia had already long been mired in bleak conditions.

Today, some 50 years later, much in Appalachia has stayed the same. A place like Owsley County in eastern Kentucky is a perfect example. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the county has the lowest median household income in the states, with 41.5 percent of residents living below the poverty line. In this photo essay for the Daily Mail, life in Owsley County is captured in startling detail, and shows little improvement in the residents’ quality of life from what was shown by photographer John Dominis in his famous January 1964 article for LIFE magazine titled “The Valley of Poverty”:

In a lonely valley in eastern Kentucky, in the heart of the mountainous region called Appalachia, live an impoverished people whose plight has long been ignored by affluent America. Their homes are shacks without plumbing or sanitation. Their landscape is a man-made desolation of corrugated hills and hollows laced with polluted streams. The people, themselves — often disease-ridden and unschooled — are without jobs and even without hope. Government relief and handouts of surplus food have sustained them on a bare subsistence level for so many years that idleness and relief are now their accepted way of life.

Though the conditions that Dominis uncovered in his essay were stark, that same disparity still exists. The case of Owsley County is just one example. Contrast the work that Dominis did in 1964 with that of Kranitz in present-day America, and a disturbing question emerges: How can people in a region so deeply mired in such economic disparity ever alter their circumstances?

(Photograph: John Dominis. Caption: Youngsters lap up a surplus-commodity supper of pan-fried biscuits, gravy and potatoes at the Odell Smiths of Friday Branch Creek. The newspapers were pasted by Mrs. Smith in an effort to keep the place neat.)