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September 13, 2017; Ledger-Inquirer (Associated Press)

Four U.S. senators have joined with the Bipartisan Policy Center to tackle one of the toughest and most resistant challenges facing America: how to turn around communities that have been mired in persistent poverty for decades. However, while the proposals are broad, they are short on funding specifics or grassroots buy-in.

The USDA’s Economic Research Service labels a county as “persistently poor” if 20 percent or more of its population have lived in poverty for the previous 30 years. Many initiatives have tried to eliminate such deeply entrenched pockets of poverty, beginning with Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” That comprehensive effort laid the foundation for the safety net of today, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps; Medicare; Medicaid; Head Start; and Social Security.

It has become popular to deride the War on Poverty, but the data demonstrate that poverty rates did fall after the programs were launched. For example, one region that has been historically mired in poverty has been Appalachia, a region that covers 205,000 square miles and includes all of West Virginia and portions of 12 other states from New York to Mississippi. President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Martin County, Kentucky, to launch his presidential campaign in April 1964. War on Poverty programs helped Appalachia lower its poverty rate from 31 percent in 1960 to 16.6 percent in 2015, as a 50-year retrospective issued by the Appalachian Regional Commission noted.

Yet while poverty has fallen in Appalachia, the most recent data show there still are 93 Appalachian counties in which 40 percent or more residents are living at or below the poverty level. Nationally, there are currently 353 persistently poor counties in the United States—11.2 percent of the total. Eighty-five percent of these counties are rural.

The report from the council and senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), David Perdue (R-GA), Thom Tillis (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA) makes a number of recommendations. Nineteen prescriptions are offered in the areas of education and workforce, entrepreneurism and job creation, energy and infrastructure, and health. There are tensions among the recommendations, especially those related to energy and infrastructure. For example, one recommendation is to develop technology that can be commercialized for extracting “rare earth elements” from coal byproducts. These chemically similar metallic elements (typically scandium and yttrium) are highly sought after in the new energy economy, says the senators’ report, and Appalachian coal contains some of the highest concentrations in the country. However, it also is true that mined areas are environmentally damaged, and employees suffer from chronic threats to their health. Although the report acknowledges that “a one-size-fits-all policy to address workforce development will not be successful in Appalachia if not done in conjunction with a plan to improve the health and wellness of the citizens who make up that workforce,” no discussion is offered on how to resolve these conflicting priorities.

Likewise, the report does not explore the root causes of persistent poverty in any detail (with one of the most glaring omissions being structural racism) or offer specific mechanisms to fund the proposals outlined. And while a list of grandees served on the report committee, there is little evidence that residents—and the nonprofits that serve them on the ground—were involved in conceiving this blueprint, even though Appalachia is home to many innovative nonprofits, such as Accelerating Appalachia, a nonprofit business incubator; small business lender Mountain Bizworks; and the Athens, Ohio-based Appalachian Center for Economic Networks; to name just a few.

In its 2017 white paper, “Turning the Tide on Persistent Rural Poverty,” NeighborWorks America listed developing community leaders as one of its top recommendations.. In Appalachia, community leaders have called for the development of what advocates are called a “just economic transition” based on the development of such industries as:

  • Renewable energy production
  • Energy efficient homes, farms and businesses
  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Sustainable forestry and wood products
  • Environmental restoration
  • Health and community services
  • Education and job training

As the nonprofit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, quoting an Appalachian farmer, notes, today “to be pro-coal miner is to work hard now to create new jobs and businesses to replace lost mining jobs and create opportunities for our children.” Appalachia is often viewed through the lens of poverty, but the southern Appalachian Mountains are one of the most biologically diverse regions in the temperate world, with nearly 10,000 species. In short, there is a lot to build on.—Pam Bailey and Steve Dubb