Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Eastern Ky. must face facts, improve schools and health, and fight corruption, native son writes

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, based in Whitesburg, Ky,. in the shadow of Pine Mountain, writes a 3,172-word essay in the Daily Yonder, which the center publishes, about the ills of his native Eastern Kentucky and his prescription for a better future.

"Not only are we the poorest part of the United States, the life expectancy here has slipped below that in countries like China and Mexico. We are ranked at the top in psychological maladies like clinical depression. Embarrassingly, we are the part of Appalachia where other parts of Appalachia send a Santa Claus train to help us come up with Christmas gifts for our children," Davis writes. "If what you are doing takes you to the bottom of the barrel, try doing something different."

That means facing the long-term facts about coal, Davis argues: "We are able to ignore facts about natural gas replacing coal in the market, the ever-declining need for miners, and all manner of scientific data about carbon’s role in climate change. . . . It is both convenient and comforting to believe that coal can save us because it confirms a story we have always been told. . . . We have done a lot of damage to the land and the people. If we continue to lead people astray, to believe things that we know in our bones are lies, to stand by as a culture of corruption infects our genuine prospects for moving forward, then we are going to get crazier. And if we refuse to acknowledge the reality of where we currently stand, then we don’t have much of a shot hanging on here."

Davis lays out several ideas for economic and community development, but says whatever measures are taken will fail if they do not challenge "the corrosive role of local corruption," he writes, citing Worlds Apart, a book in which Cynthia M. Duncan "points out that a culture of local corruption in many poor counties in the coalfields and in the Delta contributed to the disparity and their ultimate dysfunction." Duncan's main conclusion was that educational attainment is the great advantage a prosperous rural county in New England had over its chronically poor counterparts in Appalachia and the Delta.

"The schools are here. We just need to make them better, a lot better," Davis writes. "The health facilities and care providers are now mostly in place, we just need to make the system work. We have vocational schools and community colleges with training as their core services; we just need to make them more productive and a good deal more imaginative." He also calls for a push to improve the region's poor health status and fighting the drug addiction that plagues it.

"Many poor rural communities have been transformed from hard-scrabble to self-sufficiency and, in some unusual cases, to high-tech and amenity-rich zones of great wealth," Davis writes. "Strategies that work are not overnight 'get me a grant' successes; they are more often plodding developments where the benefits may only come a generation or two down the pike. That might not sound like much of a solution to an out-of-work miner who has truck, car, and house payments he cannot make, but in this neck of the woods we did not get to where we got fast, and it is going to take a serious do-over to get us out." He concludes, "Sometimes the proper response is courage. And sometimes the safest way forward is taking the greatest risk." (Read more)

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