Ed Bishop died this week at the age of 90. He spent his life working to make life better in rural communities. There isn't anyone who can take his place.
A hero of rural America died his week.
Dr. C. E. (Ed) Bishop was born in June of 1921 in Campobello, in the hills of South Carolina. We met him after he retired, but still worked every day at MDC Inc., a rural development organization in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
And every day he had the same question: How can the lives of rural people be made better?
There isn’t anyone like Ed Bishop in the U.S. today — someone who can command the respect of presidents but understands completely the way people live in the poorest community. We won’t just miss Ed because he was a good, kind person, but also because he is irreplaceable.
Here is a column I wrote about Ed Bishop for the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader in 1994. (Ed would joke that we were “cousins,” but there was no relation.) It’s about Ed and it is about a time when the federal government turned its attention to what was happening in rural communities.
It’s not easy to maintain passion, in a marriage, a job or a faith. It is even harder, as the years weather away the rough edges, to care about the insoluble problems of the world — to look at those in need and to give a damn.
After 72 years and all the success this country can heap on a person, the best thing that can be said about C. E. Bishop is that he cares, that he still gives a damn.
That’s saying a great deal. Because Ed Bishop’s life has been full. Born in South Carolina and educated at Berea College and the University of Kentucky, Bishop has been a president of two universities (Arkansas and Houston) and has served as an adviser to four presidents.
Bishop’s passion, however, has always been the plight of the poor people of rural America. In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson asked Bishop to direct the National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty. (The commission’s chairman was Edward Breathitt, then governor of Kentucky.) One year later, Bishop and Breathitt presented The People Left Behind, what has stood, for 27 years, as the federal government’s most ambitious plan for driving poverty from the countryside.
It would, today, be the place for any serious effort at reducing rural poverty to begin.
“Rural poverty is so widespread, and so acute, as to be a national disgrace,” The People Left Behind reported in 1967, “and its consequences have swept into our cities, violently.” Urban riots in the summer of 1967 caused Johnson and his advisers to see a connection between urban and rural poverty. As opportunities in the countryside diminished, they believed, more rural people moved to already over-crowded and destitute cities. Johnson’s immediate reason for the commission, Bishop believes, was to find some way “to keep people in rural areas.”
What Johnson and his advisers wanted was a quick fix, a way to keep people on the farm and out of the turbulent ghetto. That’s not what Bishop and Breathitt produced.
Bishop didn’t buy into Johnson’s premise — that people could (or should) be kept out of the cities. Too much had changed in rural America. “We aren’t talking about reversible changes,” Bishop says. “They are irreversible.”
The philosophy of The People Left Behind, therefore, is not about places. It is about people. The report’s recommendations weren’t designed to save places from inevitable economic change, but to help the people who suffered the economy’s consequences. “We emphasized that government had to cope with poverty, real poverty,” Bishop recalls.
The first half-dozen recommendations in the report, therefore, have to do with full employment, an expansionary fiscal policy (even if it meant moderate inflation) and higher minimum wages. Most of the other major recommendations are aimed at giving poor rural people opportunities (in education, health, housing, finance and training).
“When I think of real poverty,” Bishop says today, echoing the philosophy of his 1967 report, “I think of a paucity of assets. You just don’t have anything to sell.” The answer, Bishop believes, is to give everyone marketable skills, to give each person something to sell. In the language of the economist, Bishop says, “we’ve got to find a way to make the human resource more productive.”
The People Left Behind pointed in that direction. It recommended better schooling. It asked that antiquated forms of rural government be consolidated. It urged that family planning services be afforded to rural regions, that children receive free school books, that surplus commodities be distributed to the poor, that mental and physical illnesses be treated.
The pieces of the plan fit. The People Left Behind looked at what would confront rural poverty, not just cover it up.
Johnson, however, had asked for a report that would stanch the flow of people into the cities. Bishop had given him more — too much more.
“The report was not welcomed overwhelmingly by the president and his cabinet,” Bishop says. Politicians are “place oriented,” he explains. They represent geographic regions first, not people. When it was clear The People Left Behind would spur migration, not stem it, the politically attuned White House lost interest.
Moreover, Bishop says, “the report came out at an inopportune time . . . Vietnam had taken over the nation’s imagination.” The war had sapped Johnson’s will. When the president received the report, Bishop remembers, Johnson “had a blank stare on his face and his mind was on Vietnam.”
The nation’s imagination has still not returned to rural America, where poverty has increased and income has dropped since the mid-1970s. “It is a problem that the country ought to be embarrassed about,” Bishop says — again, with anger.
Attacking rural poverty
President Lyndon Johnson asked what could be done to help the 14 million people living in rural America who were poor. The People Left Behind is the 160-page answer to the Johnson’s question.
The 1967 President’s National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty made 158 specific recommendations. Here are a few:
•That the United States government stand ready to provide jobs at the national minimum wage, or better, to every unemployed person willing and able to work.
•That rural people be given the same opportunity as urban people to participate in all social and economic programs designed to improve the quality of life.
•That every child beginning at age 3 have an opportunity to participate in a good pre-school program.
•That federal money be appropriated to enable states to raise salaries of teachers in rural schools so that they may be competitive with salaries of the better urban schools.
•That every needy child be provided books free of charge.
•That land-grant universities concentrate more research and extension education resources to problems of people and communities in adjusting to changes brought about as a result of economic growth and development.
•That family planning information and services be made available before the first child is born.
•That all schools in rural areas initiate both school lunch and school breakfast programs as soon as feasible.