Speak Your Piece: A Journalistic Selfie

An urban reporter’s cure for rural poverty tells us more about her own bias than it does about what might work for distressed communities suffering from the “resource curse.”

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Former New York Times economics reporter Annie Lowery sets out to prompt a national conversation about rural poverty.

But instead of illuminating an economic problem, she shines the spotlight on herself.

Her New York Times Magazine article, “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky,” isn’t a portrait. It’s a selfie, one that tells us much more about her own bias as part of an urban power couple (she’s married to journalist Ezra Klein) perched on the heights of national media.

Lowery’s piece appeared in the June 29 New York Times Magazine (and in an online version on June 26). This 29-year-old zoomed through Kentucky like a Roadrunner cartoon on fast forward.  From statistical analysis, she zeroed in on Eastern Kentucky as the worst of the worst of what she calls America’s “tough places.”  From here, the article takes acrobatic leaps to shaky conclusions: that public investment can do nothing to address the region’s economic problems, that population density is the key to economic success, and that rural people should move to cities, which routinely lavish jobs on floods of poor people. 

At first glance, the article looks true because it has facts. But statistics without attention to cause and effect are mere data bling.  Cause and effect matter.  History matters. 

International scholarship over the past several decades has definitively established that regions rich in natural resources tend to have a host of difficulties, like poverty, corruption, lack of public investment, and over-reliance on extractive industries, to name a few. Some call this the “resource curse,” but we tend to just say “rich land, poor people.” 

The resource curse is a distinctive path of development that creates self-reinforcing problems that make it hard for communities to jump into a different track of development.  It’s very clear from the scholarly literature that this is primarily a political problem.  Extractive industries tend to lock rural, local economies into global markets that are characterized by extreme boom and busts, and ones in which local elites can become gatekeepers to vastly greater wealth than others in their communities.  This means that local and rural economies are subject to large flows of money sloshing in, and flooding out.  This is a recipe for cronyism and corruption, and once this kind of local inequality is laid down, it becomes a political machine that is very good at grabbing new funds, including federal monies which may be designed to undo it.  (It is not surprising, for instance, that Kentucky is 10th in the nation in political corruption).  Landra Lewis aptly calls this set up the “money laundering” machine. 

It is ironic that Lowrey focused on Clay County, Kentucky, without mentioning the meticulously documented history of such politics in Clay County by Dwight Billings and Kathleen Blee in their book The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia.

Billings and Blee's The Road to Poverty: The Making of Wealth and Hardship in Appalachia.

It is possible to avoid or mitigate the resource curse.  But that requires high levels of exactly what the resource curse destroys – political transparency, democratic participation and equality.  All of this is made much harder in Appalachia because the timber/coal fevered land grab a century ago has left about 70-90% of the land in coal counties in corporate, usually outsider hands.

Lowrey claims there have been “floods” of federal dollars going to rural areas. In fact, rural areas receive much less than urban areas in federal community and economic development money. Chuck Fluharty shows, for instance, that in 2010, rural areas received 61% of the amount per capita that urban areas got. If there had been equality, rural areas would have received $28 billion more in that one year alone.  This is compounded by the fact that rural areas receive less than 1% of foundation funding. 

It is true that Eastern Kentucky receives a lot of transfer payments from federal safety-net programs, which keep many people from falling below a bare minimum for mere survival, while giving ill-got millions to a few disability lawyers and others in the local “money-laundering” business.  But Lowrey is just plain wrong to lump transfer payments with real development money and then imply that this is all the same as LBJ”s “War on Poverty.”

Scholars define a “clientelist state” as one in which vertical, crony networks between local, regional, national and global power-brokers are able to skim unearned funds (called “rents”) off of the downward flow of public revenues, as well as the outward or upward flow of profit from (usually extractive) industry.  When rent-seeking behavior becomes entrenched, one ends up with a rentier class of local elites whose cultural and psychological identities are dependent on maintaining this power structure.  The “War on Poverty” explicitly tried to open up planning and implementation of programs to wider community participation, and emphasized “maximum feasible participation of the poor”.  This led to many successes in the few years before it was shut down.  But it also created powerful enemies.   To lump such diverse types of federal funding together suggests simple ignorance of regional and community development literature.

To break the resource curse, it is necessary to capture far more of the profit from extraction than Appalachia got from the massive wealth that flooded East Coast and global investors in Appalachian coal, timber and railroads for over a century.  If Appalachian states had set up permanent funds for public revenues from extraction, the region would be truly the “Saudi Arabia of America” in sheer wealth.  If ordinary Appalachians had wealth like East Coast cities got from Appalachia, they might have been allowed into the conversations that determine what development models and policies Appalachia gets.

Lowrey deeply distorts author and activist Jane Jacob’s work. Lowery lumps Jacobs with people who say cities are wealthier because they have more population density and, therefore, more social density, creativity and money.  Lowrey seems to be arguing for a kind of libertarian, neoliberal model of development in which the market rules, and “place” evaporates into mere smudges in the rear view mirror of individual upward mobility. Jacobs on the other hand, argued for a place-based, asset-based, community-based development built on local character.  This is precisely the model of development that people in the mountains are achieving and building right now – in Williamson, West Virgina, in the economic transition work of the Alliance for Appalachia, in community-academic partnerships in regional centers for Appalachian studies (such as University of Kentucky’s 2000-2005 Rockefeller Fellowship Program), in the global regional exchanges out of Appalshop or the Highlander Center, to name just a few out of all the terrific economic transition work being done in the region.

Like a Victorian lady nervously stepping outside the manor on a charitable mission, Annie Lowrey seems to have meant well. She did carom through that fly-over “smudge of the country” that is not one of the coastal pockets of obscene wealth to which she seems to think the rest of us aspire.  But in trying to shine a spotlight on us, she tripped and turned the spotlight onto herself and her own biases.  She erases the values of place, community and the countryside, while uncritically exalting mobility, individualism, wealth, creativity, cities, coasts, and success.

Betsy Taylor is co-author (with Herbert Reid) of Recovering the Commons: Democracy, Place, and Global Justice.  Follow her on Twitter @BetsyTaylor or contact her at blog.betsy.taylor@gmail.com.

 

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