John Edwards is on a tour to see poverty.
The former senator from North Carolina began his journey Monday to retrace the campaign trail of another Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whose 1968 bid was defined by a “poverty tour” through the South.
Poverty is not on the minds of many residents in this Democratic stronghold, but whether Mr. Edwards will recognize the city’s advancements or glide on the stereotype of its past.
“It makes me crazy,” said one Democratic activist on how residents in the Eastern Kentucky highlands are portrayed by the press and politicians as poor hillbillies.
The government has spent $11 trillion on the war on poverty since it was declared by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, according to Robert Rector, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation. In 2004, the last year in which all figures were available, federal, state and local governments spent $583 billion or 5 percent of the gross domestic product on food, housing, medical and targeted social services for the poor, Mr. Rector said.
“What we would like is a reality appraisal,” one Prestonsburg community activist said. “Yes, we know there are poor people here, but we know there are a lot of well-educated people working hard and making a good living.”
“It just always seems to be disingenuous, like going to New York City and only talking about the slums, that’s not really what the city is all about, and it’s not what Eastern Kentucky is all about,” the activist said.
Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee and native of neighboring Martin County, where Mr. Johnson first declared a war on poverty, said that “for some time, people of Appalachia have been concerned about how they are portrayed.”
“People have come in and exploited poverty over the years, so there is always a concern they will be portrayed in a bad light,” Mr. Duncan said. “The Appalachian culture is a wonderful culture with a strong work ethic, but TV shows and the news media have been very unkind to the people of Appalachia in terms of being exploited.”
On his way to the forum, Mr. Edwards and his entourage will pass the $7 million Mountain Arts Center, a growing community college campus, a new high-tech science center, a planetarium and two golf courses.
“The coverage Mr. Edwards might receive from this could actually be an opportunity to showcase some of the positive things that we have accomplished in the last 40 years,” said Paul Hunt Thompson, former sheriff and county judge executive.
According to Mr. Edwards‘ campaign, 37 million Americans live in poverty — about $20,000 a year for a family of four. About 26 percent of Prestonburg’s estimated population of 5,000 live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census.
Unlike Mr. Kennedy, whose large turnout was based on an impromptu release of prisoners locked up in the upper floor jail, Mr. Edwards is expected to draw a sizable crowd of die-hard Democrats, just across the street from the new multimillion-dollar justice center that stretches a city block.
“We can’t officially support any one candidate until after the primary, but we are certainly glad he’s coming — we wish all the candidates would come here,” said one member of the Democratic Woman’s Club of Kentucky, which hosts the event. “As a matter of fact, I love Hillary and Obama, but my cousin supports Edwards.”