New diagnosis for regions that are `Worlds Apart'

July 12, 1999|By BILL BISHOP

POOR, RURAL places remain that way because the people who live there behave in ways that keep them in poverty. They shirk work, think only of the present and abandon hope and ambition. The people there are poor because their culture is self-destructive.

Or, poor, rural places remain that way because of structural reasons that have nothing to do with the local culture. Owners of capital have exploited the land and people. Racism maintains a perverse social structure. Money and power are held stingily by a very few. Poor people are kept that way by a system that refuses to change.

For 40 years, these have been the two poles of the debate about poverty in such rural places as Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. But now there's a third view. It comes in a new book, "Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America," written by University of New Hampshire sociologist Cynthia Duncan.

Ms. Duncan begins the rural poverty debate afresh by listening to people who live in three rural regions. She follows the social scientific tradition of disguising both her subjects and their towns with sham names, so we know only that her interviews took place in a Kentucky coal county, a Mississippi Delta county and a Maine mill town. Her interviews are patient and unblinking -- and from them we can make out a structure of poverty that doesn't match the neat architecture found in the prevailing debate.

Rampant corruption

Blackwell (the Kentucky coal county) and Dahlia (the Delta locale) are remarkably similar. Land and power in both are inequitably distributed. Politics are corrupt. Jobs are used by those in charge to retain control. The schools are bad. Each place has a constellation of corrupted social institutions that appear to be unalterable. Or, as one informant told Ms. Duncan, "It's like a big wheel. You can't change it."

The stories are heartbreaking and maddening: "In our county school system, the people on the board are more interested in the politics -- who they can get a job for, that kind of stuff -- than they are in the children." "Everything here is who you know." "If you do have a job and you're outspoken, you can be blackballed."

In Dahlia, race adds to this toxic mix. A white teacher told Ms. Duncan she was instructed to keep a fixed distance from black students. Schools are segregated and most white students attend a private school.

Jobs and advancement are distributed by white plantation owners through black "Toms . . . The white power structure tells them what to say, and they go out and preach in their area. So the whites don't have to say anything."

In both Dahlia and Blackwell, the social structure is in tatters. People don't meet. They aren't organized. They don't share organizations or institutions.

That makes them unlike the people who live in Gray Mountain, the Maine mill town. There, Ms. Duncan finds a remarkably different culture. There, Ms. Duncan is told, people believe "we are pretty much in the same boat."

Open discussion

Residents share concerns and institutions. Compared to the people in Dahlia and Blackwell, the folks in Gray Mountain are inveterate joiners. Ms. Duncan counts 20 benefit and fraternal groups in Gray Mountain, along with a broad selection of civic and service clubs. Moreover, these groups aren't defined by class. People in Gray Mountain mix -- and mix it up in free and wide-ranging political discussions.

"Greater equality and stability [in Gray Mountain]," Ms. Duncan writes, "have supported habits of community participation, norms of community investment." In the Delta and Appalachia, meanwhile, "When communities are rigidly divided by class, as in Blackwell, or by race and class, as in Dahlia, upward mobility is blocked and community change is thwarted."

Poverty "persists" in rural regions because development is impossible. Dahlia and Blackwell are stuck in a pattern "anchored in the way the economy was organized a century ago."

Ms. Duncan is not hopeless, even though she sees little likelihood state or federal governments will do the expensive work it will take to make these places prosperous.

She believes the best leverage for changing these regions lies in the schools: "There is, however, one straightforward policy that would immediately help the poor in both rural and urban America: creating good public schools." Educated people, she said, will refuse to be poor.

Bill Bishop is editorial-page columnist for the Lexington, Ky., Herald-Leader. His e-mail address: bbishop@herald-leader.com.

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