Empty Platitudes on the Poverty Tour

by Bill Bishop

Thursday, July 22, 1999

Quoting Jeremiah and circulating petitions, "concerned citizens" in Harlan County, Ky., prayed July 10 for "a spiritual and economic future."

Quite a sight. A week after President Clinton and a cadre of spooked and confused journalists came to town as part of a national "poverty tour," the poor are down to praying for jobs in Appalachia. Schools are closing here, as young people get out while they can.

These days in deep Appalachia, you hear one of two phrases -- either "praise the Lord" or "pass the Triptik" for the shortest route to Charlotte, N.C., or Atlanta.

Clueless in Washington

If one event told how shallow national politics and journalism have become, it was Clinton's recent tour of Appalachia, the Delta, the inner cities and a South Dakota Indian reservation.

The president proposes a largely cosmetic program of tax incentives and capital infusions. The press tags along and turns the tour back inward on Washington, wondering how this will play in Congress and in presidential primaries.

It was all self-absorption when it was not just plain stupid. NBC's Claire Shipman told a national news audience that people in eastern Kentucky were poor because of rumpled land and bad roads. (And what was the reason for poverty in the Delta, where the terrain is fritter flat and the roads are just fine?) Conservative columnist Cal Thomas wrote about poverty based on this bit of original research: "On the way to Dayton, Ohio, last week," Thomas proclaimed, "I noticed three levels of federal taxes on my airline ticket."

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover pondered Clinton's "motivation" in their column. The San Francisco Examiner's Rob Morse led with the poverty tour and quickly moved on to women's soccer and, of course, Monica Lewinsky.

But that is the way to do it these days. In spring 1998, The New York Times' Maureen Dowd filed column after column about Lewinsky during Clinton's tour of Africa.

If she can ignore a continent undergoing the most incredible social and economic revolution (and win a Pulitzer for her singular attention), then why should any journalist spend more than a wink wondering why people remain poor in the Delta?

The question on the tour -- the only question -- was how it will play in Washington. The journalistic slant is ultra sophisticated on message and utterly vapid on substance. Witness poor Shipman, who believes prosperity arrives soon after ribbons are cut on four-lane highways.

A time for intervention, not investment

For the record, the Clinton plan is serious but is seriously constrained. The Clinton strategy is to encourage private businesses to invest in what he calls "untapped markets." His proposals, therefore, deal mostly with the movement of capital. If enough investment can be lured into these "new markets," then prosperity will follow.

Sounds good. Unfortunately, Southern states have tried since the 1930s to "lure" businesses to poor places with tax breaks and incentives, with dismal and sometimes destructive effects. Moreover, there is little evidence that poor places suffer from a lack of capital.

"Capital is the easy answer," says Greg Dees, a Stanford University business professor who recently completed a survey of Appalachian entrepreneurs. "Everybody wants to believe that just shifting capital will do it. Well, capital is part of the problem. But they are going to have to do other things."

Easy answers, however, are what policy is all about. Andrew Cuomo, Clinton's secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told reporters that revitalizing communities is cake. "We know how to do it," Cuomo promises.

His answer?

Persuade Silicon Valley software writers to move to Appalachia. "These high-tech guys can go anywhere," Cuomo said during the poverty tour. "They don't need water. They don't need ports. They can move to Appalachia; they can move to East St. Louis; they can move to the Bronx."

There we have it. The political and journalistic leadership not only does not know why Appalachia is poor; it has missed the reason why Silicon Valley is rich. The surest way to kill a high-tech business is to rip out its roots and move it to a low-tech region.

Researchers are concluding that what is missing in poor, rural America is more social than anything. Penn State University economic geographer Amy Glasmeier has concluded that the lack of roads and clean water in Appalachia "pales in comparison with the need for democratic institutions." The World Bank reached the same conclusion in a report titled Assessing Aid: What Works, What Doesn't and Why.

Poor regions remain so largely because their institutions do not work; their bad schools and corrupt governments drag everyone down. In her new book Worlds Apart, University of New Hampshire sociologist Cynthia Duncan says no change will occur in Appalachia and the Delta until the chokehold of local political institutions is pried loose, and she says the best place to begin is the local schools.

Keeping the poor in their place

Nearly 40 years ago, New York Times reporter Homer Bigart came to Appalachia and found a region in armed revolt. His reports of hurricane-force poverty, angry and violent miners, and a killing despair moved the Kennedy administration to act.

The "War on Poverty" grew out of Appalachia, not the inner cities, largely because journalists came, learned and wrote. It was a furious time when a journalist could change a nation's mind by telling a true story.

The federal government established community action agencies (CAAs) and placed these institutions outside the control of the local courthouse. In Hazard, Ky., where Clinton spoke on his recent tour, coal miner Everett Tharpe opened one of the first CAAs in the country.

His first act was not to attract capital but to enforce democracy. He organized citizen groups in four counties and began to expose corruption. The same thing happened across Appalachia.

But it was a short-lived exercise in democratic economic development. Tharpe and his kin were rooted out of the rebellious CAAs and replaced with county judges and mayors. The hogs were back at the trough, and those who thought they could change the political culture of the region were out on the street.

Tharpe summed up his experience in two sentences: "They wanted a program that kept quiet, put the women to sewing and the men to sweeping streets. The last thing they wanted was for us to have a piece of America."

Today, Tharpe is dead, as is Bigart. The politicians are quiet, the journalists are sweeping streets, and these poor places are still without their piece of America.

Bill Bishop is the associate editor and an editorial-page columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. He is a regular commentator for IntellectualCapital.com