When it Comes to the Economy, ‘We Are All Appalachians’

Ron Eller has written a history of Appalachia since 1945, but it is really a story about the ways the country has tried — and failed — to make a poor place prosperous.

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I was sitting with a table of economists who specialized in rural economic development last fall and I finally got the nerve to ask a question that had bothered me for years.

“Tell me the truth, you all,” I said. “You don’t really know what works when it comes to development, do you? There is no plan for how poor places become rich. There’s no recipe for prosperity, is there? If there was a sure-fire, step-by-step approach, it wouldn’t be so hard to turn places around? Right?”

People looked this way and that and nobody really answered the question — which, of course, was an answer in itself. Nobody spoke because nobody knew how to make the secret sauce of prosperity. There isn’t a handy dandy list of “things to do to make your town prosperous.” If there were, the world would be much richer than it is.

There is always a new, new idea about what works to turn poor places into prosperous ones, however. They arrive with the regularity of an oil change. Only by looking back is it possible to see that we really don’t know what works, that there isn’t a formula around so that A + B + C = Prosperity.

Historian Ronald Eller has written a new book called Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945 (University of Kentucky Press, 2008). It’s not a general history of the region, although any student of the eastern mountains should pick up a copy. Eller has produced a history of development in the United States since the end of World War II. By following the various (and ever-changing) theories of economic development tried in the still-poor regions of central Appalachia, the University of Kentucky historian has written a general history of development policy — and its failures.

Eller’s book is one of a kind, an invaluable description of Appalachia’s past and a guide to our common future.

Ron Eller
Appalachia has always spoiled the fun for those who have seen the American economy on an ever-upward trajectory. Eller explains that after World War II, most liberal economists and politicians saw poverty as an exception, “a minority condition within an otherwise prosperous nation.” In the early 1960s, however, press reports from the Southern Mountains told a story of poverty that was very un-American indeed. A Washington Post reporter quoted a community leader in Hazard, Kentucky, as saying people were staying away from church “because they didn’t have any clothes to wear or food to eat.” 

Policy-makers began what has become a five-decade search for turning chronically poor communities into working, stable and middle class towns and counties. As Diane Sawyer found in her recent pilgrimage to Appalachia, those efforts have yet to work. (See Yonder stories here and here.)

 The service Eller provides in Uneven Ground is to recount the many ways the federal government has tried to turn these poor communities into rich ones. Here’s a sample of development theories from the last half century:

• Development is like climbing a ladder. There are stages of development, with each step up setting off another wave of progress. Miss a step, however, and you can’t reach the next rung.

Appalachia’s problem was that the basic structures were missing — no roads, schools, factories or public services — so the natural stages of development could never get started. There were too many missing rungs in the ladder. The key to development was building basic infrastructure. Others believed that the construction of buildings and roads had to be matched by investments in human capacities, in education, health and job training. All were the necessary first steps up.

The Appalachian Regional Commission covers counties in 13 states.

• The act creating the Appalachian Regional Commission concentrated federal spending  in cities where “there is a significant potential for future growth, and where the expected return on public dollars invested will be the greatest.” The theory was that not every nook and cranny of Appalachia had the potential to develop, so the federal government should focus its attention on “growth centers,” which turned out to be the region’s major cities. 

• The poor are poor because of how they act. To get rid of poverty, people only needed to change their behavior. Since, as Eller wrote, “the poor themselves were to blame” in this view of development, development required only “strategies for altering this destructive behavior without resorting to redistribution of wealth or to significant structural reform.”

• The poor needed “access to power as well as to resources,” according to the people leading the Office of Economic Opportunity, the epicenter of the federal government’s 1960s War on Poverty. OEO administrator Richard Boone required “maximum feasible participation” by poor people in local development activities. Development wasn’t an economic activity, according to this view, but a function of community organization and democracy. (Donald Rumsfeld, in the Nixon Administration, was charged with dismantling the OEO.)

• Universities in the region said poverty could be alleviated by application of knowledge and technology. Regional leaders needed to be trained and mountain communities had to be taught because, according to one university specialist, development depended on “the degree of mental, physical, and social development of the people involved.” 

The list goes on (and on): Education was the key, according to some. To others, Appalachia was a colonial economy, stunted because corporations outside the region owned all the natural resources. The Appalachian Regional Commission promoted regional planning and the construction of roads and hospitals. Governors lowered taxes and offered incentives for factories to come to the mountains and jump-start the local economy.

(Governors liked incentives and spent billions persuading companies to locate branch plants in rural places. This was always a sterile kind of development, seldom leading to more jobs or new businesses. When manufacturing declines, the areas that specialized in this kind of development are particularly hard hit. Read about North Carolina’s rural jobs collapse here.) 

Name a development scheme and it’s been tried in the mountains. And as Eller tells the story, the effort has had some success. Overall, poverty and unemployment rates have declined over the years.

But most of those figures describe the region as a whole. In central Appalachia, in the coalfields of southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, the improvements seen in the rest of the region melted away. By the turn of this century, Eller writes, “Appalachia was still one of the poorest places in the United States, and the deepest and most persistent poverty was still concentrated in the core of the region in amounts that far exceeded national averages.”

Good history isn’t about the past and, being good history, Uneven Ground’s true value is that it gives us a way to understand the present. The book has come in handy in the last few weeks.

President Barack Obama announced recently that he would open an office of urban affairs in the White House. The post “will bring long overdue attention to the urban areas where 80 percent of the American people live and work,” Obama said. We’ve seen this thinking before, in the early days of the Appalachian Regional Commission. The president is betting first on a “growth center” strategy.

Eller’s new book.
Diane Sawyer’s unflattering portrayal of rural life on ABC set off a new search for the reasons why the mountains remain poor. Problems demanded solutions and the solutions offered over the past few weeks revisited most of the strategies found in Eller’s book. Fox television news commentator Bill O’Reilly blamed a “culture of poverty,” echoing theorists from a half century earlier. Others said the region needed better schools, improved health care, more industry, local ownership of the land and coal.

Near the end of Sawyer’s program, the ABC newswoman asked Eller about what was to become of Appalachia. “There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different ways than we’ve thought about it in the past,” Eller said. “We just need to be willing to dream.”

The current recession has widened the circle of dreamers, it appears. Every community is wondering what it will take to regain prosperity. In Uneven Ground, Eller anticipated this time. If development in Appalachia has been uneven, it’s “because Appalachia’s problems are not those of Appalachia alone,” Eller wrote. In this time of economic collapse, the problems of the mountains are twined with those of the larger society as we all struggle to define and find the good life.

“We are all Appalachians,” Eller writes. Now especially.

 

 

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