The Hard Times Never Left
40 Years After the War on Poverty, Western Maryland Still Hurts
By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; Page B01
For generations, Brenda Teets's family has wrestled a living out of the changing economy of Western Maryland.
No strangers to hard times, family members have worked low-paying jobs, hunted in the woods for meat to put on their tables and raised children alone when spouses died or left.
Teets's grandfather, Edgar Skidmore, worked in the Midlothian Coal Co. mine until it shut down. Her father, Irvin Morgan, worked at the Celanese Corp. synthetic-fiber plant near Cumberland until he was laid off. Teets and her grown sons work in what's known as the service sector, preparing taxes, pumping gas, answering telephones at a call center, but never getting ahead.
Forty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson went to the remote panhandle of Maryland, some 100 miles from the White House, on a tour to launch his War on Poverty.
"I know what poverty means to people," he told the crowd, as he stood on the steps of Cumberland City Hall in May 1964. "It means waiting in a surplus food line rather than in a supermarket checkout."
Yet this spring, a few miles away in Lonaconing, beyond the strip mine and the landfill, along Georges Creek, amid the hills, the food line stretches from the social hall of the Assembly of God church to the railroad tracks. There are lean, weathered men, little girls in pink jackets, and young mothers and grandmothers with empty laundry baskets, waiting to get in and collect their cereal and canned peas and apple sauce.
The hard times endure, especially in Allegany County and other rural and Rust Belt places where people find themselves swimming against economic tides -- from disappearing jobs to diminishing returns for work -- that the planners of the War on Poverty did not predict in those optimistic days between the boom years of the 1950s and Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam War.
Inside the food bank, volunteers Teets, 41, and her mother Wanda Binnix, 61, work steadily, hefting boxes, stocking the tables for the rush. These women, too, are struggling. They, too, qualify for the monthly, $5 hampers of food.
When Teets finishes, she will hurry back home to Cumberland, change from her jeans to a skirt and hose and head to her job preparing taxes.
"Two weeks pays the rent. Two weeks pays the gas bill," she says. "Then you've got to figure out where the rest comes from."
Teets may need surgery, her doctor has told her. But she can't stop now, not until work at the office slows down. "If you don't work," she says, "you don't get paid."
She has worked through injury and illness many times. Like nearly one-quarter of the working-age adults in Allegany County, she has no health insurance.
"Two, four, six, eight," Teets says, counting out cans of tuna.
Today, 20 million working Americans and family members are living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. An additional 40 million are managing to stay above the poverty line but have serious trouble paying their rent, buying health insurance or providing food for their families.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
A long surplus food line forms in Lonaconing, Md., where once a month, families in need can get a hamper of food for $5.
(Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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