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What Housing Organizers in Buffalo Learned from the ’70s

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Isn’t New.”

Luis Nieves (right) helps Michael Raleigh (left) secure floorboards in Raleigh's front porch. Raleigh is renovating a house on Buffalo's East Side that he purchased from the city for $1 through the Urban Homestead program. Photo by Mark Boyer.

We can learn a lot about what it takes to build a new economy by looking into the hidden histories of localism and cooperative economics in our own cities. And one of the clearest lessons that history offers us is that the most successful organizations of the past few decades managed to develop structures and systems that allowed them to grow while holding true to the core values of participatory democracy and community rootedness that animate them.

Here in Buffalo, the foundations of our current movement were laid in the 1970s, when our co-op movement created new bakeries, restaurants, retail stores, and credit unions. Some of these efforts were connected to anti-corporate organizing—like a broad effort to hold the big gas utility accountable and to develop energy cooperatives.

The movement for community control and cooperative economics in Buffalo blossomed as student organizers who had led resistance movements at SUNY Buffalo in the late ’60s entered their post-collegiate lives, settling in neighborhoods like University Heights and Allentown. The movement also took hold in the city's African-American community on the East Side, where a rooted and radical consciousness was expressed in a range of new community gardens, consumer co-ops, cultural institutions, and community-controlled schools like BUILD and CAUSE.

What we see when we study our own histories are friends and neighbors committed to democratic values, working like mad to live them out and experimenting at every step. As a ’70s baby, I caught the tail end of this generative phase and I can say for sure that one of its greatest achievements was in the realm of higher consciousness, of building a culture apart from consumerism that valued the wonder and discovery of childhood, of art and music and food and everything else that makes us human.

Part of our work at People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) is about honoring the elders who instilled this spirit of humanism and openness. Our board chair, Maxine Murphy, is a veteran of the Civil Rights movement who has taught us a lot about the  tradition of self-sufficiency and localism that ran through the Deep South of her childhood. It’s her vision, along with that of our membership, that motivated us to create our Green Development Zone, where we've boosted energy security through renewables and energy efficiency, repaired food systems (in partnership with the Massachusetts Avenue Project), and built a community economy of local entrepreneurs our guiding objectives.

One question to consider when thinking about how to expand our contemporary new economy movement is that of institutionalization. Why did some of the cooperative institutions built in the ’70s—especially food co-ops—get to scale and thrive in subsequent decades, while others faded away?

We can explain of lot of this with market dynamics—food co-ops catered to emerging tastes for healthier food that big corporate food bureaucracies were clueless about. But it also had a lot to do with governance, structure, accountability, and ethos. Movement institutions that depended on inhumane commitments of time and labor or that had dysfunctional management cultures obviously had a hard time moving into the future.

For us at PUSH, the new economy rises out of the natural networks and affinities that are inherent to families and neighborhoods. Those relationships are where we can build a culture of community control and of critical consciousness.

There’s an interplay between that consciousness and the material realities—of having a say over all of the commodities we need to survive: food, housing, energy, health care, and the like. We need to bring all of those things back home, to make them part of our culture and to be producers of our essentials wherever possible.

At PUSH, we call the organization that is at the hub of all this a “community anchor institution,” guided by ideals of radical democracy and rooted in the needs and desires of people at the grass roots. An anchor that produces real wealth and power for the community has to be structured enough to get to scale and compete with the market in sectors like food and energy, while never wavering in its commitment to community-driven planning and a culture of openness.


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Aaron Bartley is the co-founder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH Buffalo), which has won international recognition for its Green Development Zone, a synthesis of community organizing and development.

This post was written for the New Economy Coalition's second annual New Economy Week, an event exploring what it will take to build an economy that works for people, place, and planet. To learn more, visit New Economy Week.

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Categories: Economics

With an Economy that Worked for All, Mike Brown Would Still Be Alive

This article is presented as part of New Economy Week, five days of conversation around building an economy that works for everyone. Today’s theme is “The New Economy Isn’t New.”


McDonald’s workers on strike in July 2013 in St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Cathy Sherwin / Flickr.

The Southern Grassroots Economies Project, a network of organizations that build cooperative economic institutions in the southeastern United States, just completed its fourth CoopEcon—a training institute for cooperative members. The following is excerpted from the dedication of that gathering:

We dedicate this gathering to Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and the many other victims of police and other racist violence; we honor the heroic people of Ferguson, Mo., and the countless ordinary people in communities across the country who know a change must come and are willing to participate in creating that change.

Self-reliance carries with it a level of independence that frightens the powers that be.

We dedicate this gathering to the people of Appalachia who see the tops blown off their mountains and their streams poisoned. They watch as their children get cancer at high rates. Their beautiful homeland is sacrificed to the greed of the coal companies, then abandoned when there is little profit left to extract. We honor those who organize and resist this devastation.

We dedicate this gathering to the neighborhoods that grocery stores, seeking higher profits, left years ago, making it difficult to find fresh fruits or meats or vegetables. We honor those who have decided to do something about it and, with technical and financial help, build the stores they need.

CoopEcon honors these individuals and communities by helping them to make a change. CoopEcon is about changing the world, at first one neighborhood, one grocery store, one mountaintop at a time—but soon, all at once.

None of us can know what will happen in the next few years. We can’t predict when millions of people will be drawn into action by some event—a catastrophe, perhaps—some situation that cannot be ignored. We can't gaze into a crystal ball and foretell the future. But we can prepare for it.

We do this by working to build a sustainable economy that meets peoples’ needs, while learning and teaching the skills and building the organizations that will scale up to improve the lives of many more people in the future. Our full humanity is expressed only when we have the capacity and the opportunity to be productive, to do for ourselves, meeting our needs in our communities.

For many of us, that means working in the South.

The South is our home. It is often neglected, misunderstood, misrepresented, and underestimated. We know its history and its potential. We know that those who see us as a source for their unquenchable thirst for profit have no need for many of us. They do not want us to be capable of doing for ourselves. As it was the case of the black landowners who were a foundation of the Civil Rights struggle, self-reliance carries with it a level of independence and confidence that frightens the powers that be. Meanwhile, it gives us great courage. This is the South that we want.

The world in which Michael Brown would still be alive is a world we have yet to create.

We live in a world of contradictions and disparity. There are islands of great wealth and privilege in an ocean of poverty and despair. The concentration of power and wealth among the wealthy few leads to ecological, social, and economic devastation for the many. There are some of us, like Mike Brown, that the wealthy and powerful have no place for. They just want us “off the street, on the sidewalk”—if there is a sidewalk.

And if we are defiant, if we refuse to move out of the way, if we refuse to become invisible, if we refuse to stop being inconvenient, if we assert our humanity instead, demanding to be noticed, refusing to comply, then we might be summarily executed—like Mike Brown, left lying in the street as a sign to others that we must obey.

But many young people still refuse. These young people who refuse to do as they are told are our only hope. Those who passively seek to comply with all authority are accepting their own dehumanization and becoming agents of the dominant power.

The world in which Michael Brown would still be alive is a world we have yet to create. It is a world in which people are valued, not as a means to an end, but as ends in themselves.


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Ed Whitfield wrote this article for New Economy Week, a collaboration between the New Economy Coalition and YES! Magazine. Ed is the co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities.

This post was written for the New Economy Coalition's second annual New Economy Week, an event exploring what it will take to build an economy that works for people, place, and planet. To learn more, visit New Economy Week.

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Categories: Economics

Day 1 of New Economy Week: The New Economy Isn’t New

This article was produced in partnership with the New Economy Coalition as part of the 2014 New Economy Week. Each day this week, YES! will publish articles responding to different topic prompts. Click here for more info.

A vigil for Mike Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Photo by Sarah Ji / Flickr.

Prompt 1: The new economy isn't new.

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: There’s nothing really new in the “new economy.” Ideas like cooperative economics, ecological justice, horizontal democracy, and the commons are ideas with a rich history—especially in the places most deeply affected by pollution, poverty, and racism. Those who have suffered the most at the hands of an unfair economy are the most experienced at imagining and building alternative futures. How can we honor that as we build a broad-based social movement to transform our economy?

Our feature articles provide some insight:

For more perspectives, visit the New Economy Coalition.

Want more? Here's a sampling of articles we’ve published at YES! related to this topic:


Back to the New Economy Week main page.

This project is a collaboration between the New Economy Coalition and YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

Categories: Economics

How to Make Transit Hubs Safer for Everyone Using Intersection Repair

Shareable Magazine - October 13, 2014 - 09:56

By Mike Lydon of The Street Plans Collaborative. Photo credit: gregraisman

Transit Hubs are busy intersections where train lines, bus lines, cars, taxis, pedestrians, and bicycles often meet. Here’s how to make sure those who depend on transit the most (the very young, the very old, and families on tight budgets) can get across intersections safely.

STEP 1. Watch the People Flow.

Categories: Economics

Drying Food 101

Chris Martenson - October 13, 2014 - 09:37

The basics of putting excess fruits and vegetables away in storage through dehydration and making fruit leathers.

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Categories: Economics

Public Roads, Private Maps

Shareable Magazine - October 13, 2014 - 09:05

This story was originally published at re:form, a new design publication on Medium. Illustrations by Susie Cagle.

The first time I rode my bike from my new house in Oakland, I felt hopeful.

I sped down the smooth hill, clad in new bike gloves and helmet, official city bike map in my front pants pocket.

By the time I arrived downtown, less than three miles away, I’d dodged five very close-cutting cars, a half-dozen errant pedestrians, and more potholes than I could count.

Categories: Economics

Daily Digest 10/13 - Oil Bear Market Tests OPEC Unity, Treating Ebola Safely

Chris Martenson - October 13, 2014 - 07:47
  • W.H.O. Chief Calls Ebola Outbreak a ‘Crisis for International Peace’
  • Can You Treat Ebola- And Stay Safe?
  • Holder Of Secrets
  • I let Yondr lock my smartphone in a sock so I could “live in the moment”
  • Russia Spending $6 Billion Not Enough to Stop Ruble Rout on Oil
  • Oil Bear Market Tests OPEC Unity as Venezuela Seeks Meeting
  • The 10 Biggest Energy Company Bankruptcies
  • Once a Symbol of Power, Farming Now an Economic Drag in China

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Categories: Economics

Sharing Week Connects Dutch Sharers through National Event

Shareable Magazine - October 13, 2014 - 06:47

Sharing Week is in full-swing in the Netherlands. Running until October 15th, with events throughout the country, primarily at Seats2meet coworking locations, it’s an opportunity to celebrate sharing, discuss challenges and opportunities, and envision sharing’s bright future. This is the second Sharing Week, which comes hot on the heels of the first one held in June.

Categories: Economics

Richard Gould: Learning From Ancient Human Cultures

Chris Martenson - October 12, 2014 - 09:17

Richard Gould is a Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Brown University (where I was his student) and one of the foremost experts on hunter-gatherer societies. In the 1960s, he and his wife spent years living with the aborigines in Australia's Western Desert, observing first-hand their way of life. Through study of these people and many others around the world, his work focused on understanding how human culture and behavior adapts to environmental stress, risk and uncertainty.

We've invited him to this week's podcast to discuss what insights ancient cultures may be able to offer in terms of "natural human behavior" that may fit well within our specie's blueprint.

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Categories: Economics

Daily Digest 10/12 - First Ebola Case Contracted In Dallas, A Roundabout Way to a Higher Credit Score

Chris Martenson - October 12, 2014 - 07:44
  • You Know It’s a Tough Market When Bernanke Can’t Refinance
  • Officials Admit a ‘Defeat’ by Ebola in Sierra Leone
  • Dallas Hospital Worker Diagnosed With Ebola, First to Catch Deadly Virus in U.S.
  • In Lending Circles, a Roundabout Way to a Higher Credit Score
  • No Smoke, No Mirrors: The Dutch Pension Plan
  • When The Snows Fail
  • Fish unable to rapidly adapt to ocean acidification
  • 35 Hurt as Strong Typhoon Batters Japan

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Categories: Economics

Daily Digest 10/11 - Unsustainable Trends About To Collide, Will The Real Inflation Rate Please Stand Up?

Chris Martenson - October 11, 2014 - 09:33
  • Ready or not: Three unsustainable trends are about to collide
  • The Market Cycle’s Slippery Slope
  • 10 New Insights into Sleep: Discover What The Latest Psych Research Has Taught Us
  • Will The Real Inflation Rate Please Stand Up?
  • Cold fusion reactor verified by third-party researchers, seems to have 1 million times the energy density of gasoline
  • Here's why shale oil stocks are tanking
  • The Amish Farmers Reinventing Organic Agriculture
  • U.S. Edges Closer To Energy Independence

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Categories: Economics

Understanding Asset Bubbles - Crash Course Chapter 17

Chris Martenson - October 10, 2014 - 16:21

Through the long sweep of history, the bursting of asset bubbles has nearly always been traumatic.  Social, political and economic upheavals have a bad habit of following asset bubbles, while wealth destruction is a guaranteed feature.

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Categories: Economics

Want to Build an Economy that Works for Everybody? Next Week, We’re All About It

Photo by Lemonhead / Flickr.

For more than a decade, we at YES! Magazine have written regularly about something we call the “new economy.” Readers will recognize the worker-owned cooperatives, local food initiatives, and alternative ways of measuring wealth that have been hallmarks of our reporting on this topic. But if someone cornered you in the bulk foods aisle and demanded to know what, exactly, the new economy is, what would you tell them?

New Economy Week will have plenty going on offline as well.

The answer, it turns out, is up for debate. Even among the thinkers and organizers most invested in the term “new economy”—Gar Alperovitz and Chuck Collins come to mind—vigorous debates and conversations are going on all the time about what it is, where it should focus, and how to make it spread.

To focus that discussion, the New Economy Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports more than 100 member groups, has set next week aside as the second annual “New Economy Week.”

Monday through Friday, the days will be packed with online panels, local events, and writings. The coalition has picked five juicy questions about new economy issues and sent them to its members to see what they think. We’ll be curating their responses each day from Monday to Friday. You can find links to all five days here (we'll be updating the page with articles and links daily).

And New Economy Week will have plenty going on offline as well. The activities range from multi-day conferences such as “Who Owns Vermont?”—which will explore alternative ownership models in that state—to more intimate gatherings like happy hours celebrating October—our “national cooperative month”—in San Francisco and Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, several hundred inventors, entrepreneurs, activists, and organizers will gather in Detroit for the “New Work New Culture” conference to discuss topics like the financing of community-owned projects, the way cooperatives are portrayed in the media, and the role of local food production.

“We’re hoping that people will become inspired and empowered,” said Mike Sandmel, the New Economy Coalition’s manager of coalition engagement, “not just to oppose our unjust and unsustainable economy, but to take part in building something better.”

Mary Hansen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Mary has a hard time staying in one place but is also known to write, edit, and be a die-hard Steelers fan. She is an online reporting intern at YES!

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Categories: Economics

New Economy Week: Topics of Conversation

From cooperatives to public banks and everything in between, new economy solutions have been a hallmark of YES! coverage. But, what is the new economy exactly? The answer is up for debate, and, as a part of New Economy Week, we will be diving right into the middle of it.

Our friends at the New Economy Coalitions sent five pivotal questions about new economy issues to their members, and we at YES! will be posting the conversations from Monday to Friday, from October 13-17.

Day 1: The new economy isn’t new

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: There’s nothing really new in the “new economy.” Ideas like cooperative economics, ecological justice, horizontal democracy, and the commons are ideas with a rich history—especially in the places most deeply affected by pollution, poverty, and racism. Those who have suffered the most at the hands of an unfair economy are the most experienced at imagining and building alternative futures. How can we honor that as we build a broad-based social movement to transform our economy?


Day 2: Expanding how we think about what’s possible

In the late 1970s, U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher often repeated the phrase “There is no alternative”—meaning that deregulated capitalism was the only possible way of doing things. It’s an idea that still carries a lot of weight today, stifling the popular imagination. The good news is that it’s just not true: there are many alternatives. Local groups and social movements have been building alternatives to capitalism for centuries. How can we change the mainstream narrative about what’s possible?


Day 3: Building a movement that can win

Let’s be real. Those who have benefited from the concentration of wealth and power aren’t going to give up their power willingly. Fresh ideas for an alternative economy aren’t going anywhere without a social movement powerful enough to deliver real change despite opposition. The good news is that this movement is emerging. Our ideas and projects are resonating with people and even beginning to beat back industries that funnel wealth into the hands of a powerful few. But we can’t be content working at the margins. How do we build the kind of power we need to transform the economy?


Day 4: Combating climate change without leaving anyone behind

Powerful interests divide communities by presenting a false choice between good jobs and a healthy environment. But the new economy rejects the idea that there isn’t enough to go around. The climate science is clear: we have to move quickly to a renewable energy economy. But we have to also move in the right direction by making sure that those people who have been employed and exploited by polluting industries are not left behind. How do we transition to an economy powered by renewable energy without leaving behind these workers, their families, and everyone who depends on them?


Day 5: The new economy is close to home

Our current economy is undermining our aspirations for a democratic society and it seems unlikely that national governments are going to turn it around any time soon. But there are many examples of bold action emerging from local and regional contexts. From Richmond, Calif., to Jackson, Miss., people are organizing to build local power and are seeing major victories that could point the way to a new economy. How do we support and encourage work on the local level?

This project is a collaboration between the New Economy Coalition and YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions.

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Categories: Economics

Water for Survival

Chris Martenson - October 10, 2014 - 07:57

A brief summary of how to get water and ensure that it is safe to drink during an emergency situation or survival event.

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Categories: Economics

Daily Digest 10/10 - Energy Stocks Take A Plunge, The Cosmic History Of Earth's Water

Chris Martenson - October 10, 2014 - 06:19
  • Wall St. Closes Sharply Lower, With Energy Stocks Leading the Plunge
  • Sluggish Global Outlook Ripples in Markets
  • Chinese Authorities Make Arrests in Attempt to Prevent Pro-Democracy Campaigns on Mainland
  • Jim Grant: Gold is the anti-debt monetary asset
  • With Ebola’s Arrival at Nebraska Center, It’s No Longer a Drill
  • Wal-Mart cuts health benefits for 30,000 part-timers
  • Tiny Gasoline Drips Can Create Big Problems
  • The Cosmic History Of Earth's Water

Join the conversation »

Categories: Economics

5 Urban Gardening Secrets To Grow Food In Any City

Chris Martenson - October 9, 2014 - 16:41

If you are limited on space due to living in densely populated urban and city environments, here are 5 ways to help you along your path to food production and increased resilience.

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Categories: Economics

Solidarity Economy Organizing in the Wake of Mike Brown

Shareable Magazine - October 9, 2014 - 11:06

Since early August, the tragic killing of Mike Brown has caught fire in the news. It’s no surprise that mainstream media has limited the conversation to this one isolated incident. But it leaves a crucial void of voices for change that are working to solve the economic inequalities that create racial injustice in the first place.

Categories: Economics

Off the Cuff: Volatility With A Vengeance

Chris Martenson - October 9, 2014 - 10:23

In this week's Off the Cuff podcast, Chris and Charles Hugh Smith discuss:

  • What Is Market Volatility Telling Us?
    • Sign of a top, or preparing for another leg up?
  • Have Capital Flows Changed the Story?
    • Is too much money entering the US for the markets to correct?
  • Where Is Gold Heading From Here?
    • Long-awaited bullish signals are appearing
  • Society's Happiness Drought
    • Why do we have so much, yet feel so unsatisfied?

Join the conversation »

Categories: Economics

When Poverty Was the Enemy, Not the Poor

Photo courtesy of LBJ Presidential Library.

It has been 50 years since America launched the War on Poverty. The Economic Opportunity Act and legislation to outlaw racial discrimination were the centerpieces of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision to create a Great Society.

These programs helped get a generation of families jobs. We had to find ways to get all sides working together.

Today, rather than a war on poverty, we seem to have a war on the poor. Wealth inequality is growing. State support for education is withering. Social safety-net programs are under attack in Congress. Many Americans believe that if people are poor, it’s their own fault. The only “solution” for poverty that many people advocate is allowing companies to create jobs offering wages too low to support a family.

Although it is now widely—and inaccurately—portrayed as a costly welfare program, the War on Poverty was not a failure. If not for government anti-poverty programs since 1967, the nation’s poverty rate would have been 15 percentage points higher in 2012, according to a study published recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

For the many Americans committed to fighting economic injustice, the War on Poverty offers some valuable lessons. It showed what can work—and what is still working. It can even work in some of America’s poorest places, such as the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky where Johnson traveled in 1964 to launch his “war” from the front porch of a poor laborer’s cabin.

As a young adult, Robert Shaffer accompanied his father to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and was inspired to action by Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Shaffer went home to New Jersey and started organizing poor people to push for economic justice.

His work soon attracted the attention of the new Office of Economic Opportunity (the OEO). But Shaffer wanted to work on the front lines, not in some Washington cubicle. He had read Harry M. Caudill’s 1962 book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, which chronicled the poverty, economic injustice, and “desperation of the spirit” in an Eastern Kentucky controlled by coal companies and absentee landowners. Shaffer told federal officials, “I’ll take the job if you’ll send me to Kentucky.”

The Economic Opportunity Act required the “maximum feasible participation of the poor” in decisions about the use of federal development money. But many state and local politicians and business leaders in Kentucky saw that kind of power-sharing as a threat, and they ignored the requirement. In one example, the federal government took back a major grant from the eight-county Cumberland Valley Community Action Agency because it refused to give poor people a voice. The OEO sent Shaffer to Kentucky as a special technical assistant to reorganize the agency so funding could be restored.

“Those who lost control of the grant funds resented the new agencies,” said Shaffer, now 84 and living in Berea, Ky. “Those people weren’t used to somebody else having money to work with that they didn’t control. Sometimes it was a pretty hostile environment.”

It was about giving poor people a voice in decisions affecting their lives.

Later, with federal money and diverse local leadership, Cumberland Valley and other community-action agencies in Kentucky achieved notable successes. They leveraged social services to create businesses, taught job skills to poor people, and created small construction firms and manufacturing companies owned by their workers. Among those companies’ products: handmade crafts, upholstered furniture for Sears Roebuck & Co., and high-end dresses for Laura Ashley, Inc.

“Before long, products being produced in some of the poorest counties in the nation were being sold in fine stores in New York City, Dallas, Chicago,” Shaffer said. Unfortunately, many of those companies later went under after free-trade agreements sent manufacturing jobs overseas to low-wage countries.

“There’s a difference between welfare and economic opportunity,” Shaffer said. “And, to me, that’s the exciting thing about what we experienced here. We were using social services for economic development and ownership.”

Shaffer worked closely with Hollis West, one of most successful community action agency leaders in Eastern Kentucky. He was also one of the most controversial because of his confrontations with the bosses who controlled the poor mountain counties. At their behest, Gov. Louie B. Nunn tried to get West fired.

“These programs helped get a generation of families jobs,” said West, now 83 and living in Lexington, Ky. “We just had to find ways to get all sides working together.”

Their experiences showed them anti-poverty programs work best when poor people are involved in policy decisions. “You’re never going to change the culture of Appalachia until you have a legitimate organization of the poor and their allies,” Shaffer said. “The majority of the people in the mountains are just as capable as anyone else if they have the same education and economic opportunities as anyone else.”

Johnson’s passion for ending poverty was not shared by his successor, Richard Nixon. By the early 1970s, the Nixon Administration had killed or neutered many War on Poverty programs.

Shaffer said he and other special technical assistants from around the country were called back to Washington in 1971. The OEO was then headed by Donald Rumsfeld, who, as Secretary of Defense three decades later, would oversee the war in Iraq. “They said, ‘You’ve been doing a wonderful job, you’ve accomplished a lot of good things … but we cannot expand the program so we’re going to terminate it,’” Shaffer said.

But one organization that Shaffer and West were instrumental in creating in 1968 survived. Originally called Job Start, it is now Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., based in London, Ky. It grew under the leadership of Thomas Miller, who moved Kentucky Highlands into the venture capital business in 1972. The mission has expanded even more under Jerry Rickett, the director since 1989. Kentucky Highlands says it has helped create more than 18,000 jobs in the region since 1968 by providing more than $275 million in public and private financing to more than 625 businesses. The result: $2.1 billion in wages and salaries and $400 million in tax revenues.

Today, rather than a war on poverty, we seem to have a war on the poor.

“You’ve got to have a job if you want to overcome poverty,” Rickett said. “That’s what this company has always been about.”

The coal industry, which for more than a century created an almost colonial economy in the mountains, has been cutting jobs for three decades. Decades of state government efforts to attract large corporate employers from outside the region have resulted in few jobs that pay more than minimum wage. It has largely been a top-down effort.

But Kentucky Highlands focuses on home-grown entrepreneurship: training people who have the aptitude and helping them get capital to start and grow businesses. The capital comes from government grants and loans, private foundations, and, increasingly, banks and other private investors.

Kentucky Highlands also partners with dozens of other organizations on projects. A recent focus has been building about 25 energy-efficient houses a year for low- and moderate-income families and helping with a state initiative to expand broadband infrastructure so people can take advantage of information-economy jobs. Kentucky ranks 46th nationally in broadband coverage with 23 percent of the state’s residents, primarily in Eastern Kentucky’s mountains, having no online access.

After leaving Kentucky highlands in 1981, Miller went on to work in economic and community development in San Francisco, Tennessee, New York, and Africa. But when it came time to retire, he moved to Berea, where he continues to advocate for more effective Appalachian development strategies. Kentucky Highlands is doing the right things, he said, but it will never be big enough.

In the 1990s, the Clinton-era Empowerment Zone program brought Eastern Kentucky $40 million in tax breaks and loans, some of which still fund a $13 million revolving loan fund that Kentucky Highlands says has leveraged $120 million in private investment.

Miller thinks a new, massive infusion of investment capital is needed, an Eastern Kentucky Venture Fund of at least $250 million organized by successful business leaders from across Kentucky. The region also needs more trained entrepreneurs who know how to use that money to grow and diversify the economy.

“There are no silver bullets,” Miller said. “It’s probably a 50-year strategy, at best, and the first 10 years aren’t going to be pretty. But we know that this investment strategy works in Eastern Kentucky, that betting on the people here is the thing to do.”

Without the programs, there weren’t very many jobs. It helped them be able to take care of their families and meet needs.

Like other parts of the Central Appalachian coalfields, Eastern Kentucky remains one of America’s poorest places, with high unemployment, drug abuse, and other social problems that grow out of joblessness. But substantial progress has been made—in living conditions, educational attainment, health care, and infrastructure. And what set that progress in motion was the War on Poverty.

“Dad worked in the coal mines and did other jobs. He was a very hard worker, but he didn’t have an education,” said Darlene Sharp, 61, who was a teenager with six brothers and sisters when the War on Poverty came to Knox County. Her father managed buildings that housed the new educational programs, and her mother got a job at one of the factories West helped create. “A lot of people worked there,” she said. “I’m sure that every one of them was people who had no employment before. Without the programs, there weren’t very many jobs. It helped them be able to take care of their families and meet needs. I know it helped my family.”

At its core, the War on Poverty was not about a handout, but a hand up. It was about creating economic opportunity and giving poor people the skills and support they needed to take advantage of it. And it was about giving poor people a voice in decisions affecting their lives. A half-century ago, Americans made a commitment to fight a war on poverty, and we could do it again. Creating a society that is more fair, just, and prosperous for everyone is a fight worth winning.

Tom Eblen wrote this article for The End of Poverty, the Fall 2014 issue of YES! Magazine. Tom is the metro/state columnist for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader. Reach him at

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Categories: Economics