In the spring of 1960, at the Pocahontas Fuel Company's Itmann mine in West Virginia, then-Senator John F. Kennedy was almost electrocuted. Campaigning through coal country in his quest to to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, Kennedy nearly came into contact with a high-voltage wire before a cadre of alert miners on a shift change shooed him out of the way. Afterward, the Senator spent the rest of the trip to Itmann chatting casually with the workers there, leaning against a mine car in his sleek suit. When he left, his hands and face were dark with coal dust.
For Kennedy – a wealthy and well-connected ambassador’s son, more accustomed to sitting on the edge of a Hyannisport yacht than a mine car-- the trip was a jarring exposure to the depths of poverty experienced daily in Appalachia. But as Harvard historian Nancy Koehn points out, if it was one of Kennedy’s first exposures, so too was it one of the first for many Americans who had long been insulated from the lives of the West Virginia poor.
"By going to West Virginia and walking off the highways," Koehn explains, "television cameras turned on a group of people who had been poor and neglected in some sense -- neglected in a metaphorical and a literal sense -- for a long, long time."
The metaphorical and literal neglect of the poor in American public life is not new. But as Koehn says, in an age that is supposedly more well-connected and rich in information than ever before, it feels perhaps even more surprising, more anachronistic, and more incongruous than it did in 1960.
Today in the city of Detroit, for example, 12,500 residents are living without water. Beginning in late March, the city’s Water and Sewerage Department began shutting off water for families with unpaid water bills more than sixty days late and amounting to more than $150. These families now drink, bathe their children, wash their clothes, and flush their toilets with water collected from neighbors or fire hydrants in gallon jugs and trash bins. (It should be noted that Ford Fields and the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, who owe $55,000 and $82,255 in unpaid water bills, respectively, have not yet had their water turned off.)
To put the situation in context, Detroit is a city where 15% of the population is unemployed, where 5 out of 10 children live below the poverty line, and where the average per capita income is approximately $15,000. The average monthly water bill is twice the national average due largely to leaky pipes from a decaying infrastructure. Meanwhile -- in an irony so pronounced it is practically cruel -- the city is perched on the edge of the Great Lakes, which contain nearly 21% of the world’s fresh water supply.
Residents, fearing the city is hurtling toward a public health crisis, have taken the unique steps of appealing to the President, to Congress, even to the United Nations. Mostly, however, they have been met with deafening silence.
Koehn points out that the conditions of poverty are not as photogenic, and its solutions not as easy (or nimbly politicized) as those in other news stories. But our inaction and its consequences, she warns, should disturb us.
“How can we look ourselves in the face,” Koehn asks, “if we say, ‘Let Detroit die?’”
For more from historian Nancy Koehn on the water crisis in Detroit, tune in to her full interview on Boston Public Radio below.