In cities, people are assets. In rural areas, they are liabilities. At least that’s impression we get from the The New York Times.Dwight Yoakam sings about the hard choice of leaving your home in "Readin', Rightin' and Rt. 23."
Should we stay or should we go?
It’s hard to tell from reading the New York Times.
In a magazine piece titled “The Problem with Eastern Kentucky,” Annie Lowrey says mountain residents should hit the road to find better economic opportunity. She argues that safety-net and anti-poverty programs are actually hurting the economy in the long run, because they don’t encourage mobility.
But Monica Davey reports from Detroit in a Times’ news story that the Motor City “desperately needs to hold onto residents.” The reason: to keep the city viable by retaining a critical mass of population.
The pieces are like night and day.
In the story on rural Kentucky, Lowery argues that government poverty-reduction programs hurt people by encouraging them to remain in a distressed area. From Detroit, Davey reports on the efforts of public entities to lessen the burden of home foreclosures and tax liens. There’s not a whiff of disagreement from any quarter –what Detroit needs most is for people to stay where they are.
So why do two stories, both covering the topic of economic distress, both dealing with migration, printed within days of each other in the Times, focus on such different solutions to the problem?
Gee, let me think.
Could it have something to do with the fact that Detroit is urban and Eastern Kentucky is rural?
In Detroit, people are assets, the building blocks of a new future. In rural Kentucky, they’re liabilities, the remnants of a failed economic past.
In Detroit, folks need to shelter in place for the betterment of all. In Kentucky, it’s long past time to load up and move on.
The frames of these two stories (Lowery’s piece on Kentucky is an analysis, Davey’s piece on Detroit is a straight news story) presuppose two very different public policy responses. If people are assets, paying for their relief is good. If people are liabilities, helping them is money down the drain.
Lowery complains of the “trillions of dollars spent to improve the state of the poor in the United States and promote development.” But when we spend that money in cities, apparently, it’s an investment. More than a few public dollars have flowed into Detroit in the last generation to relieve poverty and rebuild infrastructure. But there’s still plenty of poor people there.
Lowery’s facts about Eastern Kentucky aren’t wrong. For a lot of people, it’s a tough place to live. Millions of rural Appalachians have done just what she suggests – packed up and moved. Many went to Detroit, as a matter of fact. And we’re willing to bet the people now leaving that city include plenty of Appalachian descendants.
But I find her conclusion smug. She has cleverly figured out where to move the human pieces on the map. It is as if East Kentuckians were not living, breathing beings capable of acting in their own behalf.
I’d love a good discussion about poverty – both rural and urban. And one about public policy and how to move forward together as a nation.
But remember, while we’re having this discussion, rural folks are standing right here. You know we can hear you, right?
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder.