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President Johnson's War on Poverty

Thelma is an award-winning writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She enjoys writing about rural America, especially Appalachia.

President Johnson visits the poverty-stricken state of Kentucky in the 1960s

President Johnson visits the poverty-stricken state of Kentucky in the 1960s

War on Poverty Definition

President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in his 1964 State of the Union address to the nation. In his speech, he pointed a finger at Appalachia as the most economically poor area of the United States.

In an effort to get enough Congressional votes to pass his Economic Opportunity Act, Johnson and his wife, along with numerous reporters and photographers, journeyed to the heart of Appalachia. His hope was to show citizens across the country the poor living conditions and lack of education that existed. He hoped that seeing individuals experiencing poverty would encourage constituents to get their representatives in Washington behind his program.

Conditions in Appalachia Exposed to the World

Some Appalachian folks greeted the War on Poverty with open arms, while others felt it was an intrusion by the government.

Tom Fletcher was an unemployed sawmill worker in Martin County, Kentucky, who had made only $400 the year before the president's visit. It was impossible for him to support his wife and eight children. He had no idea he would become the "poster boy" of America's poverty.

You can imagine the surprise of the Fletcher family when Secret Service agents stopped at their home (later described as a tar paper shack by the media) and asked permission for Mr. President and Mrs. Johnson to stop by for a visit.

Their front porch discussion centered around the lack of jobs and the importance of Fletcher's children getting a better education than their father had received.

After the President's visit became world news, Americans sent donations to Martin county. Fletcher got a job on a federal government road crew picking up trash and clearing brush.

Many Americans live on the outskirts of hope—our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity.

— President Lyndon Johnson speaking from the Fletcher's porch, April 24, 1964

President and Mrs. Johnson meeting the Fletcher family.

President and Mrs. Johnson meeting the Fletcher family.

Surprising Turn of Events

Unlike Tom Fletcher, there were many who wished Johnson would have stayed in Washington and never have gone to Kentucky on his "Poverty Tour." Fletcher was embarrassed by the news reports of his lack of education and the description of his "deplorable" living conditions. However, he believed help was on its way.

No one was more upset about the influx of the media than Hobart Ison of Letcher County, Kentucky. His actions would give the people of the area even more of a "black eye" in the minds of Americans in more affluent parts of the country.

Canadian journalist Hugh O'Connor came to Letcher county to film a documentary about life in the United States. It is certain, he had no idea how this assignment would end.

While filming at some rental houses owned by Ison, O'Connor was told by him to get off his property immediately. O'Connor replied he and his film crew would leave but they needed to pack up their equipment first. With that comment, the impatient Ison started shooting the cameras and then turned his gun on O'Connor and killed him. Again, negative news attention was directed at Appalachia and its people.

Life Magazine Brings Worldwide Attention to Appalachia

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.

— Life magazine, January 1964

Different Reactions to Assistance Promise

The different reactions of the people of Appalachia to the offer of assistance from the White House had basically two elements:

  1. People living in poverty, both in Kentucky and nationally, were desperate for any financial help they could receive. President Johnson was offering not only jobs, but also educational opportunities and improved and more available healthcare. These things were thought to be a panacea for all of their problems. Many believed they were entitled, as Americans, to such benefits. They welcomed any help they could get from Washington to realize their dreams. This was the mindset of the Tom Fletchers of Appalachia.
  2. Most people in the region, especially Kentucky, are proud and do not want interference in their private lives from anyone, especially the government. Many thought the news media of the time period, shed a bad light on their way of life. Reporters made fun of their appearance, speech, homes, number of children, lack of education, and even their teeth! They had been getting by for generations without Washington's help and they could continue to do so. The land was their legacy and unwelcome trespassers would be dealt with. I believe with some degree of certainty, these were Hobart Ison's thoughts on the day he killed Mr. O'Connor, especially since it has been said he never expressed regret for the killing.

Are We Winning the War on Poverty?

The poverty rate is based on the percentage of Americans whose income is lower than the government-designated poverty line.

Over 50 years since the program began, there are numerous opinions as to its success. Following are quotes from a Conservative and a Liberal that demonstrate the vast divide on this subject:

Conservative Opinion

"The essential mistake that Barack Obama is making is that he believes Lyndon Johnson's Great Society entitlements can elevate the poor to prosperity. They can't. In 1965, the poverty rate in this country stood at 14 percent. Now, after untold trillions have been spent fighting poverty, the poverty rate is 14.3 percent. Amazing, is it not? The conclusion, America is bankrupting itself with an entitlement philosophy that does little."

— Bill O'Reilly, formerly of Fox News July 26, 2011 (Conservative)

Liberal Opinion

O’Reilly’s comment overlooks the actual purpose of the Great Society programs, which wasn’t to boost incomes directly, in a way that would be detectable in poverty statistics, but rather to "improve the health care, nutrition and educational attainment or performance of Americans."

— Gary Burtless, Economist with the Brookings Institution (Centrist-to-Liberal)

Outcome for Tom Fletcher and Hobart Ison

Mr. Fletcher was never able to break out of poverty. After Johnson's anti-poverty programs went into effect, Fletcher began receiving a monthly disability check for $282. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 helped with food expenses for his large family.

He lost his first wife to breast cancer. His second wife murdered their 3-year-old daughter and tried to kill their 4-year-old son, who survived. She wanted the children's insurance money so they could put a bathroom in the house. She spent 25 years in prison. Fletcher passed away in 2004 at age 78, still in poverty.

As punishment for the journalist's death, Hobart Ison was given 10 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. Amazingly, he got out on parole after serving only one year.

How Are the Economies in Letcher and Martin Counties Today?

For interested readers, CensusReporter has updated statistics on the poverty rate in Letcher and Martin counties.

The state of Kentucky is one of the poorest states in the US. The states that are poorer include Alabama, West Virginia, and Arkansas, and the poorest state is Mississippi. With the exception of Arkansas, all are located in Appalachia.

The overall United States poverty rate as of 2019 was 10.5%, much improved from the rate of 19% in 1964.

The numbers speak for themselves.

Appalachia Consists of Counties in 13 States

Information courtesy of the Appalachian Regional Commission

StateNumber of Counties Included

New York








West Virginia

All of the State





North Carolina




South Carolina








Map of Appalachia

Map of Appalachia

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Thelma Raker Coffone