Thursday, April 24, 2014
By Zhivko Illeieff

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s declaration of the War on Poverty from the front porch of the Fletchers’ home in Martin County, Ky. I had never heard about this war until I came to work for Appalshop in July of last year.  It didn’t appear in my Bulgarian and American high school history textbooks. It even remained hidden during my studies at a college in Virginia. It took two years out of college and moving to the mountains of Southwest Virginia for me to finally learn about the War on Poverty. Since then, I’ve been comparing and contrasting the realities of poverty in Bulgaria and in Appalachia.

In 1964, President Johnson (LBJ) declared an “unconditional war on poverty,” urging Congress to adopt a cooperative approach to help U.S. households with incomes that are too small to meet their basic needs.  Johnson listed “better schools, better health, better homes, and better job opportunities” as weapons to help Americans “escape from squalor, misery, and unemployment.”

The President generated support by visiting Tom Fletcher’s cabin in Martin County, Kentucky – one of the poorest regions in the country. This image became widely associated with the War on Poverty. It depicts LBJ actively listening to what Tom Fletcher has to say about the problems in his community. 

Today, fifty years later, Martin County has a poverty rate of 35%. The national average is 15%. The majority of persistent-poverty counties like Martin County are characterized as rural. What does this mean for people like me who are currently living in rural America? What can we learn from the War on Poverty now, in 2014, when the level of inequality is at its highest since 1928? 

I arrived in Southwest Virginia after two years of working in an urban corporate environment. I respected the ways in which a corporation is able to motivate diverse groups of people to work towards a common goal, but came to the conclusion that, in the long term, the “constantly expanding and chasing profits” mentality is not only unsustainable, but also potentially destructive to the welfare of the many.  It was this realization that made me quit my job and search for opportunities to help people, without having to subscribe to ulterior motives. 

Eighteen years ago, when I was a kid, you would have found me in Sofia, Bulgaria playing soccer on the green patch between these “L” shaped blocks. Built to last, these remnants of totalitarianism house the majority of the Bulgarian population.  The name of this neighborhood is Obelia 2 and it was a “краен квартал” when I lived there – a Bulgarian phrase which translates literally as “endmost neighborhood,” and means the neighborhood furthest from the city center, where people of modest income tend to live.

I enjoyed living there. It is where I started to read, write, and use a computer.  Living in these blocks gave me a sense of community that I haven’t been able to replicate anywhere else. All of my friends lived nearby. We would knock on each other’s doors every day and explore the concrete jungles around us. 

There was a lot of love in my neighborhood, but there was also a sense of confusion and apathy.  After all, the people who lived there had been misled, over and over, by opportunistic politicians. I could feel this as a little kid.  Political parties kept changing, but I didn’t feel a difference in my surroundings. Our parents and grandparents witnessed the fall of communism and the painful transition to a democratic society. This transition, like the War on Poverty, appeared to be never-ending, as reaching a truly democratic goal would require a complete restructuring of how the country operated.

Today, Bulgarian experts cite “regional inequality” as one of the reasons for Bulgaria’s record pace depopulation.  They urge Bulgaria “to tackle the issue of high concentration of investments and resources in certain regions at the expense of others.” In 2012, 24 settlements disappeared from the country’s map and 172 were on the verge of extinction, because they had been depopulated. In a country that’s roughly the size of Tennessee, these figures are extremely alarming. They also bear a striking similarity to the historic, and current, outmigration in the Central Appalachian region. 

Strategies to address inequality in Bulgaria change according to which political party is in power. Much like U.S. politicians, who periodically visit Appalachia, populist Bulgarian figures come to the countryside, promise they will fix its problems in a set period of time, and then disappear. This shuffle makes it impossible to enact long term strategies, which could make a difference. As a result, the people’s default stance towards the Bulgarian Parliament is a distrusting one.  The same trend exists in the U.S., where more and more people, especially young adults, have lost faith in public institutions.

Those of us who are 18 to 33 years old constitute America’s most racially diverse and technologically savvy generation. Because everything a politician says or does nowadays is recorded and analyzed, we can use technologies to hold elected officials accountable. This can lead to transparency or, more likely, secrecy.  So, what can we do?

The founders of Roadside Theater/Appalshop, where I work, would say, “Those with the problem must make up the generative base for devising and enacting solutions, because they are the most knowledgeable about their own situation.” This does not mean that those with the problem stand alone in their quest for solutions. It means that their rarely considered voices must be heard as foundational for bottom-up, grassroots problem solving. It’s a tall order for populations here and in Bulgaria that have been disenfranchised for generations, because it requires individual and collective learning and movement-building.

Even though my generation, both here and abroad, is typically shackled by college debt, unemployment, and propaganda, low-cost media making allows us to easily record and make public the authentic voices of our communities.  This is leading to self-discovery and revealing our local problems. Our challenge now is to “make up the generative base for devising and enacting solutions.” We will need to connect with the people and knowledge bases of our communities, and work with them to reimagine and enact our future.

If the War on Poverty was successful in empowering even one local community, then it holds a lesson for all of us in Appalachia and around the world. A war waged on a concept can never be won, but its universal essence can be a unifying force for real change.  I view the people living on the block the same way I view the people living up the holler. We are not a symptom of poverty; we are the solution to eradicating poverty, and should be treated as such. 

Discussions on this topic too often turn into left-right issues, taxation issues, or statistics issues. While all of these interpretations play a role in coming up with a solution, there is no substitute for the authentic voices of Martin County, KY that are still waiting to be heard.

Zhivko Illeieff is Roadside's Web Community Coordinator. He can be reached at [email protected]

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Photo Credit: Bettmann/Corbis

Cite This

Zhivko Illeieff. “The War on Poverty: A Bulgarian-American Perspective.” December 8, 2015.

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