Living in the Fixer-Upper

This fantastic essay by Dee Davis, from the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY, appeared on the Daily Yonder earlier this week

Elwood Cornett stopped by my office. He is a retired educator and a minister, a kind and decent man. He came by six years ago on the same mission: to tell me about the effort to bring a federal prison to our county and to ask for my support. Our county is poor. The few industrial jobs we’ve had are in coalmining and that ship is sailing away. For most of the last ten years Mr. Cornett’s volunteer group has been trying to attract a $300 million dollar prison project with its promise of good jobs and outside investment. 

It is the kind of crummy choice rural communities often get. And in Appalachia it appears to be as close to a choice as anyone out there is going to give us. You preen for the Bureau of Prison screeners, you pledge all manner of local support, you turn your schools into corrections training facilities, and then if all goes well, you get outside contractors paying their own tethered suppliers to build a frightful facility with the few decent paying jobs going to qualified people mostly from long distances away.  From that day forward this community will be known mostly for the prison and the special notoriety of the individuals housed there: terrorists, drug kingpins, and if we are lucky, local politicians.
 
Of course some fast food franchises and convenience stores will feed and fuel the families from the New Jersey or New Mexico who drive in to visit a wayward child, but the promised economic impact of the prison will lie there, beckoning but beyond local reach.
 
At least that is where the evidence points. Our Congressional District, Kentucky’s 5th, is the nation’s poorest. The two poorest counties in this poorest of Congressional Districts have federal prisons that some civic boosters thought would help them turn things around. They just didn’t. As the song “Jericho” says, “We are the prisoners of prisoners we have taken.”
 

This is not to criticize Mr. Cornett. He is fighting for the prison because he loves his community and sees no other alternative. He told me that. And barring federal sequestration or spontaneous penal reform, there is the pending promise of a large federal outlay for this facility. The head of the House Appropriations Committee is our Congressman, Hal Rogers, who is doing what he can to get it here. 
 
My questions about the coalfield economy are more basic than whether we get a maximum-security prison. To start, how did we get in this mess? Can we turn this thing around? Why do we always wind up back here fattening frogs for snakes?
 
Being poor is not a permanent predicament in this country. But it is a problem that won’t fix itself.  Throughout the twentieth century U.S. ethnic groups like Greeks and Koreans devised strategies to help their communities and to move immigrant families out of destitution. Many poor rural communities have been transformed from hard-scrabble to self-sufficiency and, in some unusual cases, to high-tech and amenity-rich zones of great wealth. Cities given up for dead make comebacks and create new prosperity. Strategies that work are not overnight "get me a grant" successes; they are more often plodding developments where the benefits may only come a generation or two down the pike. That might not sound like much of a solution to an out-of-work miner who has truck, car, and house payments he cannot make, but in this neck of the woods we did not get to where we got fast, and it is going to take a serious do-over to get us out.
 
To read the full essay (which I highly recommend), please visit the always-illuminating Daily Yonder website.