Reading: WAPO’s “A Region Left Behind” series

In case you missed it, The Washington Post‘s Chico Harlan ran this wrenching story, “A lonely road,” in late December. While many of us were cleaning up after Christmas, maybe driving those relatives to the airport, this long-form story about job-hunting in the Atlanta area may have slipped by you. Its subtitle reads: “For the poor in the Deep South’s cities, simply applying for a job exposes the barriers of a particularly pervasive and isolating form of poverty.” It’s a good read for anybody who suffers from the illusion that poor people are lazy and just don’t want to work.

“A lonely road” is the fourth in a so-far four-part series, all written by Harlan, on the poverty of the Deep South. Part one, published last July, was titled “An opportunity gamed away.” The woman profiled in this bleak narrative, set in Tunica, Mississippi, is a retired schoolteacher with a bad hip. She lives in a falling-down shack, one among many in a neighborhood that once housed the town’s rising black middle-class. Tunica had briefly enjoyed a financial windfall from gambling operations in recent years, but those have now closed down, and the residents are now wondering where the money went.

Part two, “Graduating, but to what?” from October, follows a graduating senior in tiny Drew, Mississippi. From the pitiful ceremony in the high school gym, when his grandmother gets locked out for a lack of seating, to his arrival after graduation at a trade school, the stark outlook for the young man is emblematic of larger issues in the region. The Deep South may finally be pushing its young people to finish high school, but what’s left unanswered is: what opportunities will there be when they do?

Part three, “A grim bargain,” provides an equally desolate picture of what life is like for low-wage workers in the Deep South. Set in Sunny South, Alabama, the piece glimpses into a Chinese-owned copper operation in extremely poor Wilcox County. In a not-so-coincidental connection to the previous article, Harlan writes, “In wide swaths of the Deep South, public schools struggle, turning out workers who lack basic skills,” which causes the need to low-skill jobs. This treatment comes from my part of the country, the Black Belt region of Alabama, and Harlan describes what we here are well aware of:

In a county that is 70 percent black, the historical inequities have dovetailed with a more modern inability to adapt economically. Between 2000 and 2010, Wilcox lost 30 percent of its jobs and 25 percent of its businesses. Its unemployment rate went from 8.7 percent to 26.3 percent.

However, not so many people are aware of the giveaways that bring these foreign-owned factories:

In Alabama, [the copper plant’s owners] Golden Dragon wouldn’t pay taxes for 20 years; it would get free roads and land.

Reading Harlan’s articles – all four of these were posted before I noticed any of them – brought on plenty of sickening reminders. Despite slick public relations about economic development, the underlying truths are still there: quality of life in the Deep South falls way below any acceptable standard. In both small towns and big ones, a cycle of almost inescapable poverty is so prevalent that it will take more than a couple hundred industrial jobs to fix it.

No, the Deep South needs a vigorous combination of educational improvement, industrial recruitment, and infrastructure building, all of which can’t be accomplished by low taxes and evangelical grandstanding. The cash-strapped job applicant needs a viable public transit system. The near-disabled retiree needs help repairing her dilapidated house. The recent graduate needs a range of job opportunities to find the one that suits his skills. And the politicians need to stop eliminating underfunded state services while simultaneously inviting non-tax-paying foreign companies to underpay our most desperate citizens.

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