Sen. Barack Obama's off-the-cuff remark about the economic decline of small towns and the alleged preference of their "bitter" residents for guns and religion seriously misses the point of what really ails these American communities. And Sen. Hillary Clinton's rush to capitalize on her opponent's faux pas and promote her small-town roots also was an insult to Marylanders and others across the United States who make their homes in small towns.
Instead of sociological critiques or romanticized memories, politicians need to focus on providing more help in education, training and development in these rural communities.
Senator Obama has acknowledged his rhetorical misstep, but he may have performed a real service by drawing more thoughtful national attention to the economic plight of small towns. These communities often are struggling to deal with the loss of thousands of good jobs from a relentless succession of factory closings -- textiles, glass, tires, machinery and so on, their fate a seemingly unavoidable consequence of fierce international competition and consolidation aimed at increased productivity.
The economic pain of small-town life is grimly apparent. Maryland may have the third-lowest statewide poverty rate in the nation (8.3 percent), but the rate is 20 percent in Garrett County, 26.6 percent in Somerset County and 22 percent in Dorchester County. Still, Maryland ranks in the bottom third of states in spending on adult education, a critical factor in reducing poverty, and invests very little outside of limited federal funds in job training.
Even without significant help, some small towns aren't giving up. In Luke, near Westernport in Allegany County, where the poverty rate is 15 percent, the town's paper mill, which employs 950 workers, is trying to stand its ground. New Page Co., which produces glossy papers used for magazines and catalogs, persuaded the U.S. Commerce Department to grant an anti-dumping tariff on imported Chinese paper last year, only to have it overturned by the U.S. International Trade Commission. One out of every 25 people who work in Allegany County's private sector works at the mill, where the pay averages $22.50 an hour, far higher than the pay at most local employers.
The future looks grim in Westernport, unless New Page survives and new jobs are found. Community leaders are working to meet that challenge. They may love their guns and go to church on Sunday, but what they need from politicians is understanding and real help.