• U.S.

The Presidency: This Old House . . .

4 minute read

We must give to all Americans, those on the farms and those in the cities, a chance to drink from the cup of plenty. I just came from visiting a home that has used the food stamp plan, that lives off an old-age pension that tries to feed a grandmother, seven children, a mother and father—a family of ten—off nine acres of tobacco and ten acres of cotton on an advance of $20 a week with a charge of 10% interest.

—President Johnson in Rocky Mount, N.C., May 7, 1964

The President, once a poor boy himself, really feels deeply about poverty. But he is also striding high with it as a political issue, and last week he got tripped up.

A couple of Republican Congressmen, Nebraska’s David Martin and Kentucky’s Gene Snyder, journeyed South and returned with a tale of dire poverty in Lyndon’s own backyard—or, more precisely, Lady Bird’s. In Alabama’s Autauga County, Lady Bird owns about 3,000 acres of land that she inherited from her family. Much of the land, once cotton-producing, has been turned to timber, but four Negro tenant families still live on some of the property, occupying rundown houses that do more than Lyndon Johnson’s words to dramatize poverty.

If They Cared? “We were shocked at the squalor we found,” reported the Congressmen when they returned with a telling set of photographs. The tenants are “living in deplorable poverty with little evidence of concern by their millionaire landlords.” Said Snyder: “We found tenants living in three-and four-room shacks with cracks in the flooring, leaking roofs, broken wood-burning cook stoves, some at least 50 years old, and no toilet facilities.” Said Martin: “If I owned property like that, I’d feel it a moral obligation to make it comfortable and adequate. At least so the roof doesn’t leak every time it rains, so the water doesn’t fall on the bed.”

Added Snyder: “We saw nothing here that could not easily be corrected by the Johnsons themselves, without a nickel of federal funds or a single federal program—if, of course, they really cared.”

Among Lady Bird’s tenants, said Martin and Snyder, were Charles Cutler, 75, and his wife Willie. They pay Lady Bird $5 a month for a four-room house and an old barn on four acres, and have a cash income from public welfare of $150 a month. “We have lived here for 50 years,” said Mrs. Cutler. “We like it. I want to stay here until the good Lord takes me away. But I do wish that Mrs. Johnson would fix the roof. This old house leaks bad.”

Making It Possible. While newsmen flocked to Autauga County to see for themselves, Lady Bird’s press secretary, Elizabeth Carpenter, hastily explained the Johnson side of the story. It seemed that Lady Bird actually wanted to turn all of her land to timber, but expressly instructed her overseer to permit the old tenants on the land to stay as long as they liked. “Most of the families are very elderly and have no place to go,” said Mrs. Carpenter. “They want to stay there. She is really making it possible for them to live out their days at $5 a month, and she sends them boxes of clothes.”

Sure enough, Farmer Cutler showed newsmen three tailor-made suits that Lyndon had sent him. “They makes me feel just like I’m a Senator myself,” he chuckled.

As to whether the President’s anti-poverty program is likely to affect them, Mrs. Cutler allowed as how she was not familiar with the specifics, but that if Lyndon Johnson runs it, “it’s sure gonna be a fine thing.” And maybe, before the good Lord takes her, that roof will get fixed.

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