Monday, April 07, 2014

Appalachian historian tells Great Society anniversary crowd region is canary in the coal mine of inequality

Ron Eller speaks at Ohio University
(Athens News photo by Lori Cook)
Appalachia is a warning sign for a nation with growing economic inequality, regional historian Ron Eller told an Ohio University audience Friday, at an event commemorating President Lyndon B. Johnson's visit to the school on May 7, 1964, when he first used the term "Great Society" for his domestic programs, including the War on Poverty, which he had declared that January.

Eller, distinguished professor of history at the University of Kentucky, is the author of Uneven Ground: Appalachia Since 1945. "The ground was uneven because resources were unequally distributed, the wealth generated by hard labor was shipped out of the region to enrich others, public institutions were scattered and weak because taxes were sparse or non-existent, the political system responded more to those with economic power than to the common good, and government strategies for economic growth unduly benefited local elites or distant investors," he told the Ohio crowd. "The inequalities within Appalachia and between Appalachia and the rest of the nation are the result of relationships of power, not the deviant qualities of race or regional culture."

The LBJ anniversaries have again focused attention on Appalachia, "more often than not as a symbol of the failure of the War on Poverty to complete its mission," Eller said, quoting conservative writer Kevin Williamson's description of the region as "the big white ghetto" and liberal writer Thomas Frank's description of "the declining economic condition of the entire American middle-class as the 'Appalachification of the world'. Many of these recent accounts of poverty in Appalachia apply the same false assumptions about the culture and history of the mountains that fueled the War on Poverty in the 1960s, and most continue to ignore the structural challenges within the political economy of the region -- challenges that continue to fuel inequality."

Eller said the War in Poverty ended when the Office of Economic Opportunity was dismantled in the Nixon administration by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, and "Public policy toward the poor in the last quarter of the 20th century shifted to one of maintenance. . . . If the War on Poverty failed to eliminate poverty in America, let alone in Appalachia, it was not because of some deficient culture within the mountains but because of the lack of national will to build a fair and equitable society and because of the failure of government programs to create a level playing field within the region. . . . Anti-poverty programs did little to address problems of inequitable land ownership, capital outflow, or political cronyism in Appalachia. Programs designed to provide jobs and to develop the region's economy concentrated resources in middle-class growth centers, failed to protect the landscape and water quality, encouraged the growth of consumer dependency, and facilitated the out-migration of youth."

Eller concluded that the War on Poverty may have failed to achieve its objectives, but the country has learned much from that failure, reports The Athens News. "Its goals remind us that democracy is a continuing process," he said. "Perhaps it's time for us to abandon the politics of self-interest, and recover the spirit of collective responsibility that motivated the War on Poverty. This, in fact, may be the defining challenge of our time." For Eller's remarks as prepared for delivery, click here.

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