Black Belt Poverty
Published Thursday, May 1, 2003
Georgia Trend Magazine
Discusses the Study on Persistent Poverty in the South
By Zell Miller
No one has ever had to give me a briefing on poverty. I have seen it up close. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like. I know its generational consequences. Most important, I know how it can be overcome. Not by government give-away programs, but by government focusing on its root causes and zeroing in on them in an intense and coordinated way.
When I was a boy growing up in Young Harris in the 1930s, there was only one narrow paved road in our tiny mountain village. It ran right in front of my house, and only a handful of cars passed through each day. My family's car was not one of them, because we had no car and wouldn't have one until I was an adult. That lonesome highway later became the fast track for most of my high-school classmates to leave and go over the mountains to find work. The isolation of our village gave them little reason to stick around. There were few jobs and little opportunity in Appalachia back then. A large part of my life has been dedicated to trying to do something about this. It was hard going and progress just inched along until the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) was created in 1965.
This federal commission helped breathe new life into north Georgia and much of Appalachia. Its highway program connected Appalachia to the rest of the world with 2,300 miles of modern roads. In fact, that narrow little strip of road from my youth is today the wide and busy Highway 515, an Appalachian Development Highway that goes straight to Atlanta. The ARC's economic development programs helped create hundreds of thousands of jobs, cut the region's poverty rate in half, doubled the percentage of high-school graduates and cut the region's number of economically distressed counties in half. So I have seen firsthand what a federal commission like the ARC can accomplish, and that's why I believe we should use it as a model to try to help what is now America's poorest region - the rural Southeast.
I have introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to create a new federal commission that would address the poverty of the Southern Black Belt - an area that got its name in 1901 from Booker T. Washington, as he described the color of the rich Southern soil on which the slaves toiled. Now I know that creating a new federal agency doesn't happen overnight, especially with the snail's pace of the U.S. Senate. So I realize this may not happen before I leave the Senate in 2004. But it is critical that we get started. It is critical that we raise this issue and begin making the case on behalf of the millions of residents in the rural Southeast who need the kind of help that an efficient, coordinated and focused federal effort could bring.
Over the years, while Atlanta, Charlotte, Birmingham and many Southern cities prospered, the Southern Black Belt has been left behind to drown in the most persistent poverty of any region in the United States. I was born in the midst of the Great Depression and I know what it's like to live in a house with no electricity and no indoor plumbing, where an open fireplace provides the only heat. But in the 71 years since I was born, my house, my hometown and my region have been transformed. The Southern Black Belt has not. It remains stuck in time with conditions that are eerily reminiscent of the Depression era.
It's a region that is predominantly white, but its percentage of African Americans is nearly three times the national percentage. The region's percentage of adults who lack a high-school diploma is 40 percent higher than the national percentage. Its rate of low-birth-weight babies is 25 percent higher than the national rate. Its death rate from diseases such as cancer and diabetes is 10 percent higher than the national rate. Its percentage of people living in mobile homes is three times greater than the national percentage. Usually, the biggest employer is the government, the courthouse or the schools.
Over the past several decades, Congress has created several federal commissions to help regions all over the country: the Northern Great Plains Commission, the Southwest Border Counties, the Denali Commission (Alaska), the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority. Doesn't our nation's poorest region - the Southern Black Belt - also deserve similar help?
I know it may seem strange for me - of all people - to be pushing for a new federal commission at this time and in this economy. But I have always believed that government can be a force for good and that one of the most important jobs of government is to set priorities. You must decide what's most important, and then focus your energy and dollars on those priorities. I believe that addressing the needs of America's most poverty-stricken region should be one of our priorities.
I also believe that we should strive to run our government as efficiently as a business. And folks in business always look very carefully at the return on their investment. Well, if we make an investment today in the Southern Black Belt, we will be saving money tomorrow. By helping more folks graduate from high school, by attracting more jobs to the region, by improving access to health care, we can boost the productivity of this region. And when people and communities become more productive, they depend less on government for help. That's a return on investment any CEO would envy.
We owe it to the citizens of the Southern Black Belt to try some of the programs that have been so successful in lifting Appalachia out of poverty's grip. I have never believed that government can solve all of our problems. But there are some problems so big that government must step in and help. This is one of them.
How The Study Was Done
The Study on Persistent Poverty in the South, conducted by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government, focuses on rural portions of Southern states not covered by either the Appalachian Regional Commission or the Mississippi Delta Regional Authority. Early on, two distinct, contiguous areas of counties emerged. Phase I incorporates seven states east of the Mississippi River: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. (Phase II includes Southern states west of the Mississippi.) The percentage of the population in poverty was determined by using 2000 Census data; 1980 and 1990 data were added to determine counties with persistent poverty over a 30-year period.
The persistently poor Phase I region includes 242 counties; 91 of them are in Georgia, 18 in Mississippi, 41 in North Carolina, 28 in South Carolina, 26 in Alabama, 26 in Florida and 12 in Virginia.
The region has a population of 7.5 million, with a poverty rate and unemployment rate higher than the U.S. as a whole. Other characteristics are equally as alarming: The Phase I regional population has a higher number of people 25 and older without a high school diploma, more low-birth-weight babies and a higher incidence of deaths from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than the country as a whole.
The main focus, says the study summary, "is to see if change and success in combating persistent poverty can be realized through a federally supported and/or state initiative and to identify the geography of where these communities are located."
The study data document widespread and persistent poverty across the region, which affects people of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. Many of those who are living in poverty are working poor, not unemployed.
"This is a generational problem," says James G. Ledbetter, director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. "We went back to 1980 - we could have gone back to 1900 or 1950 and a similar map would have been presented."