Appalachia needs something akin to a Marshall Plan, not a pittance.
The people of Appalachia and Middle America feel excluded from the conversation about their destiny. A feeling of hopelessness persists. Regions that once hosted bustling steel mills, auto plants and coal mines now house desolation and shuttered main streets.
Families cannot stay together because the young people must leave to find work. This only adds to the pain — because family counts in Middle America.
The piecemeal approach to tackling the persistent problems of Middle America in the past five decades is a study in failure. Misery and desperation have come to define communities with poverty, high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. The poverty rate in Appalachia, for example, hovers around 17% but is much higher in dozens of counties.
A comprehensive plan and massive investment in Appalachia and Middle America would offer hope. The effort deserves dedicated leadership at the Cabinet level. The Marshall Plan turned around a devastated Europe after World War II — it can be done.
Where could funding be found for such a program?
Washington spends billions on other countries every year in foreign aid programs. The United States sent $32 billion overseas in 2019. Appalachia got $177 million from the Appalachian Regional Commission. That is only one example. If the political will existed, if Washington cared, something could be done.
More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty. That war, placed in the hands of so-called experts and government bureaucrats, failed to help the 420 counties constituting Appalachia.
We know what does not work. Despite the good intentions behind the Appalachian Regional Commission, it has provided no real solutions. A prime example of the policy of benign neglect can be found in an ARC press release Feb. 12 touting $3.3 million in “investments.” People in Appalachia know those crumbs amount to nothing. Washington doesn’t get the magnitude of the problem.
Importantly, developing a plan must include input by the people of Middle America. Things have been left to the experts long enough. The Network organization, a Catholic lobbying group focused on social justice issues, hosted rural roundtables through 2019 and the beginning of this year. At the roundtables in 16 states — in places like Oil City, Pa., and Tiffin, Ohio — residents voiced a feeling of being neglected and misunderstood, their concerns dismissed by outsiders and by the public officials elected to represent them.
Participants said solutions to their problems needed to be rural and community solutions.
Solutions to keep hospitals and clinics open in rural areas. Solutions encouraging entrepreneurs to move into distressed communities and support for residents who own and operate their own businesses. Solutions that bring better-paying jobs, not big-box retailers paying minimum wage, so that families can stay together.
Shrinking tax bases are starving basic services in Appalachia and Middle America — services like police, firefighting and schools. An infusion of federal money could save the foundations of rural communities.
For the Washington Beltway establishment, the decades-old answer is the same — throw them a few million for infrastructure projects every year via the ARC. It’s not enough.
It is time for real investment in Appalachia and Middle America to begin. What’s needed is a comprehensive plan, utilizing every department of government, to rebuild infrastructure, retrain workers, keep essential services functioning and encourage redevelopment of the economy.
A targeted investment of federal dollars, and a dedicated leadership implementing a well-thought out plan, could revive hope in Appalachia and Middle America.