Author: Huey Perry
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Book Review by: Sonu Chandiram

Huey Perry, a successful entrepreneur, has a diverse background. He has been a farmer, (having being born into a farming family), a student and civic leader, a volunteer in numerous charitable activities and projects, a compassionate teacher, a fearless author and an astute business owner, though not necessarily in that chronological order.

Seeing and reading about him on, we find a man who went through extreme poverty and family financial struggles in his earliest years in life and developed a strong, admirable character with enduring values and a giving, helpful outlook towards people.

I believe that volunteerism does not come easily to most people, but to Huey Perry it was and is, part of his nature and very being, as you will discover when you start reading this eye-opening book.

The book relates to the 1960s War on Poverty programs, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ administration, which involved projects throughout the United States to lift the standard of living and improve the prospects for the poor and underprivileged for a better financial future. The end of racial injustice was also a major goal of that national undertaking.

In 1964, the Congress of the United States passed the Economic Opportunity Act whose purpose was “to eliminate the paradox of poverty in the midst of plenty.” The Act created a federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) whose principal function was to provide grants to non-profit corporations that submitted applications for them. Local governments were invited to sponsor the non-profits that would apply for the grant money.

The LBJ programs improved education and provided medical care and better transportation, as well as tackled other rural and urban problems. The principal beneficiaries of these programs were poor, lower-income and elderly people.

The focus of this book is on one such local story within the national undertaking of the late great President Johnson in uplifting the poor and the disadvantaged. It is Huey Perry’s personal story written in a straight-forward manner, with a lot of detail in his narratives: the events, the people, the places, and thoughts and feelings they expressed.

It is a colorful episode in his life that began for him at age 29, then a history teacher, as he battled a corrupt and obstructionist local government that opposed and resisted his projects as director of the Mingo County Economic Opportunity Commission.

No doubt Huey Perry had much success under his belt as an antipoverty pioneer and ‘leader of the poor’. In 1966, he and the commission he headed had much to be proud of, with 30 completed projects, among which, as we quote from the book:

“Roads into the back hollows had been repaired; schoolhouses had been renovated. Carpenters assisted by men on relief had torn down abandoned shacks and built and painted new homes. Swimming pools had been fixed; a park overlooking the dramatic valleys had been built.”

Also, the fruit of Perry’s labor (and thanks to ‘poor power’ as he termed it) had yielded, among other successes: a Head Start class with 600 students attending it; 300 teens were participating in self-employment projects and medical checkups were routinely available.

This book is about his efforts in an Appalachian community in southern West Virginia to assist the impoverished by improving school conditions and programs, set up cooperative grocery stores to provide food at affordable prices in the midst of price gouging by some merchants, and other initiatives.

On a broader perspective, They’ll Cut Off Your Project points out the victories and the defeats of the War on Poverty. It gives us the reasons for some failures, including why and how a local government in Mingo County in West Virginia, which is supposed to work for the welfare of the public, cut off a social reform project. This book is valuable in that respect, and it illuminates why politics sometimes impedes economic progress.

As one reviewer, Edward Magnuson of Time Magazine writes on this problem: “Perry’s story told simply and without polemics, shows how hard it is to do something that seems simple – get funds into the hands of the poor.”

Jeff Biggers, who wrote an insightful 20-page Foreword for this book, is the author of The United States of Appalachia and Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland.