Southern Discomforts

by Drew Gibson

My interest piqued this morning when I saw a link to a BBC News Magazine article on the current fiscal crisis in Europe with the sub-header: “Lessons from US history for the crisis-hit eurozone.” I assumed the piece would go one of two ways. In the first version, America’s tentative investments in domestic human capital and our comic/tragic inability to pass even semi-effective regulations to pull the reins on big business would be hoisted up as a classic, “what not to do” scenario. In the other version, I imagined that the Brits had actually lost their collective mind and were dreaming of creating a Europe that responded to financial armageddon with a slow, plodding escape from recession that lasts into the foreseeable future and sees unemployment rates under 8% as reason for parades in the streets. Fortunately, writer Michael Goldfarb invoked the golden years of American Liberalism and that scion of public works, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

A Marshall Plan Poster Urging European Solidarity and The Use of Windmills.

In the article, which you can read here (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18281576), Goldfarb hoists up the Tennessee Valley Authority and The Marshall Plan as suitable lodestars for current EU policy. For those of you who may have been dozing or doodling during US history class in high school, The Marshall Plan was the US post-war strategy for rebuilding Europe in general and Germany in specific. The Allies had just spent 4 years expending hundreds of millions of dollars and millions of lives into destroying Germany and 2 years after the war was ended, the victorious Americans decide to…bankroll the reconstruction of everything they just firebombed? Well, as Marshall and then-President Truman’s government accurately assessed, their national economy—as well as that of the world—could only function with a strong, productive Europe, which has always had Germany as it’s prime economic engine. In a lovely bit of irony that history seems predisposed to heap on us in times of calamity, it is now Germany who finds herself being called upon to bolster the weaker economies of Europe and she is none too thrilled about it.

The other example Goldfarb gives, The Tennessee Valley Authority, is the quintessence of everything old-school New Deal democrats like myself love about infrastructure investment and is what conservatives generally see as a harbinger of the coming of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. The project put tens of thousands of Americans back to work during the Great Depression and provided electricity to the previously gaslit hollers and hillsides of the South through the construction of hydroelectric dams. This is now ancient history in terms both of when it happened and the chances it has of happening again in the current US political climate. While this is normally enough to put a damper on my spirits for an hour or so, the paragraph written as a brief synopsis what the South was like back in the 1930s was much more dispiriting. I feel as if I need to reprint it in its entirety here:

During the Great Depression, the South was the most deeply impoverished part of the US. Still reeling from its defeat in the Civil War 70 years earlier, the region’s overwhelmingly rural population had a per capita income that was dramatically less than more industrialised parts of the country.

Per Capita Income of Southern States – 2011

It has now been nearly 150 years since the end of the Civil War and not a damned thing has change. The south is still the most deeply impoverished of the US, is still overwhelmingly rural and has a per capita income that is dramatically less than the rest of the country. Of the 13 states considered by many to be Southern States, 6 of those states reside in the bottom 10 for per capita personal income and occupy 4 of the final five spots (South Carolina – 46, Kentucky – 47, West Virginia – 48 & Mississippi – 50). Only one state, Virginia, made it into the top half of US states and was the only state to exceed the national average. But, even this silver lining is tempered with lead as the state’s numbers are heavily skewed by the droves of folk who work in DC yet live in the suburbs and exurbs of Northern VA. As a matter of fact, the Top 6 counties in Virginia by per capita income are all in that stretch of Northern VA that lines the outskirts of DC and Southeast Maryland. Take out DC and Virginia comes back home to roost in the poorhouse with the rest of its Southern brethren.

So…the South is strapped for cash and no one seems to care. Not that I can blame some people as pretty much every state’s budgets have been squeezed tight the past 5 years, but there is an air of resignation and apathy to the poverty in the South that is unnerving. California is drowning in a historic amount of debt and Silicon Valley hasn’t been able to unstick them from the mud and the suck and the doom that they find themselves in. Yet, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t think The Golden State isn’t going to pull out of it. In such a hotbed of ingenuity and ambition they have to find their footing eventually, so the logic goes. Even in my home state of Ohio and the Michiganders to our north, there is a cautious optimism underlying everything that is done. Detroit may be shrinking, but it is far from dead and people can see GM and Ford rising like Phoenix from the ashes of their bankruptcy to bring work back to where it used to be. No matter where you go along I-75 you pass by a town that once was bustling with the hum and clang of industry and, while capacity’s been cut and plant’s are closed, there is faith that it will all be made right. I don’t know if you have that down south.

Especially down in the deep south: in the land of George Wallace and Roll Tide. In the place where Katrina’s splinters are soaked in BP’s crude and the clay’s redder than a pot of boiling crayfish. This is the home of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County and Robert Johnson. And I don’t know if it’s ever not been poor down there. Call it the long dreary legacy of slavery or a set rural agrarian blinders. Just seems like some places have been down on their luck so long they’ve decided to set up camp and make a night of it.

You look at the way HIV has caught on in the South like kindling covered in kerosine and it should be shocking…but it’s really not. You spend a day driving through the Appalachians or across the Mississippi Delta and you’ll see it’s no secret why HIV and all manner of health iniquity have flourished. These are the areas where recovery is desperately needed and where we as a nation have an obligation to band together with what little resources we have and lift these people up. Germany must help Greece to its feet just as New York has an obligation to prop up South Carolina while it gets its bearings. Otherwise, what kind of platitude is it to call our states united? Solidarity is what is called for now. The best and most fruitful way to boost this nation out of our recession is to link arms and paint the whole thing purple.

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Categories: Social Justice

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