Unexpected victory: As the ‘War on Poverty' turns 50 this month, - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

Unexpected victory: As the ‘War on Poverty' turns 50 this month, one West Virginian recalls how the Mountain State piloted unconventional methods to turn the tide

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LINDA HARRIS / The State Journal: Ed Flowers LINDA HARRIS / The State Journal: Ed Flowers
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Accustomed as we West Virginians are to being the butt of bad jokes, there was a time in our not-so-distant history when the Mountain State was not only winning the “War on Poverty,” but was showing everyone else how to do it, too.

Yes, that's right. West Virginia was a role model. Representatives from 27 other states and more than a few foreign countries, including Thailand, wanted to emulate it so badly they journeyed to the Mountain State to see first-hand how we'd managed to reduce our welfare rate as well as increase benefits on top of reducing costs.

Even then-Deputy Undersecretary for Welfare Reform, Richard Nathan, made at least two pilgrimages here, and was quoted by United Press International in 1972 saying West Virginia was “at the very forefront nationally in doing the kind of things that many federal agencies are contemplating” to reform the welfare system.

At the heart of it all was Ed Flowers, modest and unassuming, but also keenly intelligent. A Hancock County native, he'd studied law at West Virginia University and had his own practice in New Cumberland when a chance meeting with then-Congressman Arch Moore Jr. on a flight from Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh in 1967 changed everything.

Flowers had gotten to know Moore at WVU. Moore literally carried the title of Big Man on Campus. He'd returned from the battlefields of World War II with a purple heart and a bronze star and had a hand in just about everything that happened on the WVU campus.

The two of them got to talking on that plane ride. Moore confided he was thinking of running for governor and asked Flowers what he thought.

“I told him it was a bad idea,” said Flowers, now 84 and living in Morgantown. “He was already making a contribution in Congress.”

Then the man-who-would-be governor asked Flowers who he thought his competition would be. Flowers gave him a name, but not the one Moore wanted to hear. Turned out, Flowers was right. But, despite Flowers' reservations about the timing of Moore's gubernatorial bid, the Republican Moore was able to win. Flowers helped guide Moore to an overwhelming victory in the predominantly Democratic Hancock County, a task Flowers said was made easier “because he'd been a good congressman.”

Getting started

Months later, Moore summoned a trusted group of advisors to a summit in Preston County where he spelled out his plans for them and his administration.

“After the election I'd written him a letter, ‘How to be governor,'” Flowers recalled. “I thought that fulfilled my commitment to him ... then he asked me to come to this secret meeting.

“When I got there, there was this great group of people and he went around the room talking about his vision. He went all around the room ... I thought I was off the hook, because there was nothing left. Then he shocked me, saying he wanted me to be Welfare Commissioner.”

Flowers recalls telling the governor privately he could do better with his pick.

“I told him I knew nothing about welfare, and there's nothing you can do about it,” Flowers said. “I was half right — I knew nothing about it, but there is something you can do about it.”

Flowers eventually told Moore he'd spend two years as welfare commissioner. Flowers' first task after taking his oath of office was to tell his predecessor he was out of a job. Since the rest of the staff was Civil Service, they stayed on. Flowers' job was to figure out a new way of doing things, and then get his staff to buy into it.

“West Virginia was the poster child of poverty, going back to the Kennedy election days,” he said. “The only picture you ever saw of West Virginia was a shack on the hillside.

“My advantage was that I took office without any agenda other than do as good a job as I could for West Virginia. I had no ideology. As commissioner, my goal was to try and do the best I could for all those who had to depend on the state for help.”

Look, listen, learn

Flowers was the new guy in town. He knew it, and so did his staff.

“I was Republican and a lawyer,” he said. “I came from a county that didn't experience poverty; we had the lowest rate in the state.

“But I think the staff recognized that I really wanted to learn. Maybe I had more competency than they'd expected. They learned to trust me, and I trusted them.”

Rather than sit alone in an office in Charleston rubber-stamping directives from Washington, Flowers took to the road — going out in the field to talk to caseworkers and welfare recipients. Everywhere he went he asked questions and listened to the answers, using what he learned to forge new policies.

“I started in the county that had the greatest percentage of its people on welfare at the time, Mingo County, then moved on to McDowell County and so on,” Flowers said. “I went places no welfare commissioner had ever gone.”

Caseworkers told him what they needed to do their job better, “things I needed to know, things that really served as the seed for policy changes.” He would tag along on their home visits, introducing himself as their “colleague.” What he saw gave him a better understanding of what families in crisis needed.

Like when he witnessed people struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

“There were barns that were better than the shacks some people were raising their children in,” he said. “If we could have a program to build outdoor privvies in the 1930s, we should be able to help with housing.”

And when mothers who'd been abandoned by the fathers of their children said they wanted their men to own up to their responsibilities, he obliged.

“I didn't think we should let people shift their responsibility to government, so we started pursuing fathers more aggressively,” he said. “We tracked them and got court orders against them. I remember getting a letter afterward from a woman telling me I could terminate her welfare grant — she said her husband had come home as a result of tracking, that they were back together and had never been happier. We weren't just collecting money — we were reuniting families.”

Then there was the young mother who'd had three kids in quick succession and knew she couldn't handle more, “she said she'd been using sassafrass and it wasn't working,” he recalled. That conversation prompted Flowers to arrange for caseworkers to dispense birth control advice to women and for the state to pick up the tab for the pills or devices they chose — controversial solutions to problems he felt West Virginia couldn't afford to ignore.

“If we didn't talk about it, who was going to?” he said. “We had to face up to real problems people were facing. I was willing to talk about things ‘nice' people didn't talk about it.”

Changing the culture

Dealing with poverty in West Virginia has never been an easy task.

The state's dependant population then “was spread out over a wide area, very sparsely,” Flowers recalled. Roads were narrow and windy, jobs were scarce.

“In southern West Virginia the principle — sometimes the only — employment was in the coal mines,” he said. “But if the mines weren't working there were no jobs for them. And at that time, there were no interstates to help you get out there and find them.

“A lot of our people had been region-confined for generations, their families had lived in a small area of the state and they'd never been to a city like Charleston, they just didn't feel like they could survive in one. In some cases, it was just very difficult.”

When women told him they wanted to work outside the home but couldn't find affordable child care, Flowers had his staff develop a day care program. They arranged for women on welfare who preferred staying home to care for the children of women who joined the workforce.

When welfare recipients balked at taking jobs because of the months-long wait to qualify for employer-assisted health care, he made sure the state extended the recipients' medical benefits until their new employers' plans kicked in.

When they realized kids living in poverty dreaded going to school because they didn't have stylish new clothes like their more affluent classmates, the department issued clothing vouchers for school-aged children.

West Virginia became the first state in the nation to adopt the food stamp program to help those who could not afford to feed themselves or their families, eventually distributing the stamps by mail so those in need wouldn't have to beg rides from neighbors with cars and wait in long lines. The department also developed a commodity program to get surplus foods where they could do the most good.

The state also initiated early intervention health screenings and diagnostics for children, later transitioning to computers, dramatically shortening the waiting period for that first check.

And they started a kidney transplant program, bringing together wildly diverging factions in West Virginia's health care arena to offer life-saving dialysis and transplants to Mountain State residents suffering renal failure. That came about almost by chance, when the governor asked Flowers out of the blue what he would do if he had more funding.

“Then the governor asked me how much it would be,” Flowers said. “Off-the-cuff, I told him about a half-million dollars. He said, ‘Let's do it.'”

West Virginia also eliminated county control over welfare under Flowers' watch, drawing the ire of beltway politicos who'd used the old system to solidify their political power base in West Virginia.

“We made new employees go through an orientation so they would understand the big picture,” he said. “And the big picture had the recipients in it. It enabled us to make changes, and make them more quickly.”

Impressive results

The results from the Moore administration's reforms were impressive: While the national caseload had jumped more than 33 percent from the start of Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty, three states — one of them West Virginia — had registered a decline, even as the number of unemployed fathers drawing welfare was slashed from 7,200 in 1969 to 384 in 1974.

Even more impressive, benefits for those too old or infirm to work increased even as the caseload decreased.

That kind of one-two punch was unheard of.

“Everybody said you couldn't reduce welfare while you increased benefits, that you'd be attracting more people than you could possibly get off, but we did it,” Flowers said. “We got a caseload reduction and we got more help for people who needed it. It was a sensitive area, but from the beginning when we signed them up for (assistance) we were already talking about the end.

“People didn't usually turn to welfare until all their other resources had been exhausted, so we got them help quickly and helped them move on to another part of their life. Our goal was not simply to get them on welfare — we counted our success in how many people we could get beyond welfare.”

The rest of the country began taking notice. After two or three years, “We had every state in the nation coming to West Virginia to find out how we'd done it. Governors were coming here so they could see what we were doing. We'd have discussions; they wanted to know what we'd done to get to that place, what we had done to change things.”

Flowers saw himself as the middleman — the guy between the people living in poverty and the governor who wanted to help.

“I had a governor ahead of me who was willing to be politically courageous and he trusted me,” he said. “I knew nothing about welfare, but I didn't try to fake anybody out. I had this great idea how West Virginia was going to be saved, how I was going to make people prouder of the department than they'd ever been. After about six weeks on the job I remember writing a memo to the governor, ‘In six months we will have the best department in the country, this bunch is better than they think they are.' They just needed to be encouraged.”

Beltway backlash

Moore had come to realize how widespread poverty was in West Virginia during his first gubernatorial campaign throughout the state. In his 2008 biography, author Brad Crouser said Moore was profoundly affected by what he'd seen on the campaign trail:

“ ... As concerned as he became about the plight of the poor, Arch did not believe that the Great Society programs should simply arm special interest groups to impose their leftist agendas on communities,” Crouser wrote. “With the increased awareness of poverty in the region, universities in the North and elsewhere were sending their graduates into Appalachia, as do-gooders, sent out to build a new and (in their view) more just society ...”

Crouser said Moore's efforts to get welfare recipients back to work were a “relatively new concept in America at the time, and not a universally popular one.

“For a period of time, what the Moore administration was doing to force welfare recipients back into the workforce, off the government dole, was contrary to what the liberal establishment and even those in the Nixon administration were advocating,” Crouser wrote. “Flowers had to ‘bend,' and even break, some federal guidelines to accomplish what was needed to succeed.”

Beltway bureaucrats “nitpicked and fussed at every new thing the Moore reformers tried to do, even when they clearly made good sense,” Crouser added. “The feds insisted upon showing their authority, having their way over the state.”

Flowers was undeterred, however. When the feds threatened to cut West Virginia's funding, he told them he welcomed the Congressional hearing that would follow. When they threatened to send in federal auditors, Flowers told them no one on his staff would talk to the auditors.

“They just didn't know what to do about it,” Flowers later told Moore's biographer, “so they kept sending the money.”

Making the grade

It's now been 50 years since President Johnson declared War on Poverty.

Aug. 20, in fact, will mark the 50th anniversary of the signing of its cornerstone legislation, the Economic Opportunity Act. EOA gave rise to landmark programs such as Jobs Corps, VISTA, adult education, the federal work-study program, and job training.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who came to West Virginia in 1964 as a VISTA volunteer and ended up carving out a career for himself in state politics, describes it as “an experience so meaningful that it changed the trajectory of my life.”

Rockefeller has said memories of “the amazing people I met and treasured memories,” like driving a Jeep full of kids from Emmons to a clinic in South Charleston for their first dental visits and extending water service to the Emmons community, “continue to inspire my work to fight for our most vulnerable.”

“Our country has made progress in addressing the root causes of poverty like increasing access to health care and education,” Rockefeller notes, “but clearly we still have a long way to go toward finally eliminating the deep economic disparities that exist in West Virginia and across the nation.”

Flowers said he thinks West Virginia “is accomplishing more today in welfare than we realize,” though he concedes that's just a guess. But, he said there's no denying how his Mountaineers responded to the challenge nearly 50 years ago.

“Poverty is relative and perpetual,” he adds. “Poverty of today would have been affluence of my grandfather's day. And poverty is continual; it presents a challenge in every era and every age.

“The ‘war' is never ending. The ‘poor' will ‘always be with us,' and the Good Samaritan was not suggested to be the last third-party payer who would be needed for health care.”

West Virginians, he notes, “are compassionate, caring and capable people who, given the opportunity and support, can collectively and individually cope with the challenges of their neighbor's need and ‘win the war' of their time.”

Flowers insists the department couldn't have done as much as it did with so little were it not for the rank and file, the men and women who manned the front lines of West Virginia's War on Poverty in the '70s. That's why he summoned them to a reunion in 1987, to celebrate what they had been able to accomplish and to make sure they knew none of it would have been possible without them.

Since then, they've come together nine more times.

“These guys keep coming back, from all over the country,” he said. “We all share the same pride, all the good work we did. We became the envy of all 50 states.

“A lot of our initiatives were adopted federally. These were dedicated, professional people. They did such a tremendous job for the state.”

John Yankey, deputy welfare commissioner, said Flowers had a hand in that.

“To be the best, we first had to believe that we could be such,” Yankey said in a recent testimonial to his former boss. “Under Ed's leadership, we believed. This may have been his greatest leadership gift to us all. At the same time, to become the best required a team. We were that team.

“Each of us had enormously important roles to play in helping to achieve the vision. West Virginia government may never again experience any thing comparable to our achievements during those ‘heady' days.”

Not bad for a guy who said he would serve two years and ended up staying six.

“It's fair to say I did it under protest,” Flowers admits with a smile. “But it maybe turned out to the best job I never wanted.”