To: Mr. Future President ““ Obama/McCain”¨
From: Betty Dotson-LewisӬ

Mr. Future President:

Have you visited rural West Virginia? The luscious green trees and winding hollow roads hide much of what’s happening here. And much of it is poverty.

West Virginia produced 15% of this nation’s coal during 2007 — more than 158 million tons, according to the West Virginia Department of Mines. Coal is responsible for $3.5 billion of West Virginia’s gross state product.

West Virginia’s largest coal producer, Massey Energy, compensated its CEO, Don Blankenship with more than $23.7 million in 2007. This figure included salary, bonus and other perks, even a house, according to the Beckley Register Herald.

WV girl with doll

Student at Dixie Elementary School
Nicholas County, WV
Photo: Builder Levy

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 49.1% West Virginia children (almost half) were eligible for free or reduced lunches based on poverty guidelines established by the U.S. Health and Human Resource Division. (2008 U.S. HHS Poverty Guidelines say if you make $21,200 per year for a family of four, you are poor.)

Last Christmas, a little 9 year old girl at Dixie Elementary, a small, rural school in the Appalachian coalfields of West Virginia, was asked what she wanted for Christmas. Instead of the expected response of an MP3 player, a Hannah Montana doll, video game or skateboard, the little girl asked for a blanket. All she wanted for Christmas was a blanket for herself and her little sister to keep them warm while they slept, one on each end of the couch. The girls were keeping warm by covering themselves up with their coats at night.

The Christmas before, at the same school, one of the school aides raised enough money to purchase a nice pair of tennis shoes for each child at the school except one. For many of the students it was their first pair of tennis shoes.

west Virginina scene
In rural West Virginia, barn with post and lintel for tanning hides
August 2006
Photo: Carol Von Canon

In a small coalmining town not far from where I live in rural West Virginia, an elderly man, alone and desperate, knocked on the door of the town’s nursing home. He asked to be admitted to the care center, the facility for those who are ill. He was told institutions did not work that way. The man told the employee at the nursing home, if he did not get a bed there he would sleeping on the street in a cardboard box in the snowy winter cold. The employee told a couple of workers to take the man over to the hospital to see if they could find something wrong with him. The elderly man had no other place to go.

School personnel know that dozens of students (or hundreds, depending on the size of the school) eat their only nutritious balanced meals at school. After school programs serve a healthy snack, which often is their evening meal or supper. Energy Express and other summer school programs employ a cook as part of the regular staff. The students are fed healthy meals as part of the learning program. Students cannot concentrate if they are hungry, teachers tell me.

Head lice is one of the most common reasons for students’ absenteeism in these poor rural areas. Students cannot return to the classroom until medical personnel determine all the nits are gone.

This past weekend I drove by houses that had sheets, a blanket, towels, and children’s pants hanging on the front porch railing. I don’t believe it was an environmental issue, hanging the clothes outside to dry. Instead I believe the people living there did not have the simple luxury of a clothes dryer. I know they do not have public water or sewer.

What they do have is one of the richest coal operations in the U.S., Massey Energy, staring them in the face. They have the constant noise of stripping away the trees and earth on the mountain in front of them to reach the rich coal. And they can expect dust and dirt from the coal trains and coal trucks to settle on their laundry, hanging on that front porch railing.

lbj and fletcher
President Lyndon Johnson visiting Tom Fletcher and family in Martin County, Kentucky, 1964
Photo: Walter Bennett

Politicians and writers enjoy bringing up that Lyndon Baines Johnson, U.S. President, declared War on Poverty after he walked through the mud to Tom Fletcher’s home near Inez, Kentucky in 1964 and saw how that family was living in poverty. We have had politicians alluding to that War, or the dream of it, ever since.

I know poverty is a world wide problem. I cannot speak from a global point of view, about natural diasters or about urban ghettos. I am from a coalmining town with one stop light in West Virginia. I can only speak from what I know first hand ““ Appalachian poverty.

The houses I saw this past weekend and last weekend where people were standing in the doors or looking out the windows or glancing up from the front porch were no better than what shocked President Johnson in 1964 into declaring war on poverty. This is 2008, 44 years later.

At the beginning of each school year I would take a shopping bag and go to Goodwill and buy children’s clothes in sizes 6, 8, 10, 12 and send the bag by the principal to Zela Elementary. He told me again and again, the students who received the clothes improved in school attendance.

Mr. Future President, I don’t have a plan, but it hurts me to see people I know and care about living in substandard housing ““ no public water, heating by a single wood stove, no health insurance and no way to pay for dental care.

The children suffer the most. Teachers deal with poverty on so many levels each day in their classrooms. In my county, with about a student population of about 4000, 40 student expulsion hearings were held during the last school year. Most of these students have low self-esteem. They are living below poverty level. They have little if any structure in their homes or in their lives. They don’t have the right clothes or nice furniture in their houses, or the means or desire to participate in extra-curricular activities. The parents of these students are concentrating their efforts on paying the light bill or keeping gas in the car so they can travel to their minimum wage job, if they have one. If they do not have a job they have to make trips to and from the welfare office.

I remember one high school student recommended for expulsion who was living totally on his own. He was living in an old bus by himself. Our school district declared this high school student officially homeless.

WV man on porch

On the porch in Gilboa, West Virginia, c. 1982
Photo: Carol Von Canon

Are politicians serious when they make promises to come up with a plan to help people get out of poverty or is it just another vote getting gimmick? I wonder.

I don’t think creating a welfare state is the way to go. Handouts cripple and only empower the giver. Appalachia has had enough of that plan of action.

West Virginians can be persuaded, Mr. Future President, if you are interested in our vote. That was proven when John F. Kennedy came to West Virginia, proving a Catholic could win here, when Bush came that proved a Republican could win.
Article 24 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child in the world – regardless of race, sex or nationality – has the right to nutritious food and health care. It is hard to believe that in a country as prosperous as the United States, we have twice as many poor children as any other developed country.

Mr. Future President, when can we expect the war on poverty to reach the poor?

Note: Photographs by Builder Levy will be included in Appalachia U.S.A., an exhibition at Berea College, Berea, KY, in October, traveling to the Parkersburg Art Center, Parkersburg, WV, in November.

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