Poverty - where are we, and where are we going?

A Liberal Dose


Over the past four columns, I have been talking about the connections between poverty, crime, stereotypes, and industry in Upper Cumberland history. If you missed it, or want to refresh your memory, you can find them online either at SpartaLive.com or at my blog, tnwordsmith.blog.com.

For a really quick summary: there is a long history here of drug-or-alcohol related crime, and I assert that the high poverty rates in the region are a large factor in that. I traced the history of the high poverty and asserted that it started with the arrival of extractive industries like coal and timber, largely financed or owned by investors outside the region who wanted both land and a cheap work force. A bad national economy at around the same time caused many farmers to have to sell their land and go to work for these new industries, who were aggressive about preventing unions. The Appalachian hillbilly stereotype developed around the same time, painting the people as backward and uncivilized and not trustworthy to make their own decisions about how to use their land or labor.

I mentioned that regional industry before the Civil War was more diverse than afterward, when it was dominated by the aforementioned coal and timber interests, then by tobacco agriculture, then by shirt factories. Tobacco dried up as more people quit (or never started) smoking, and the shirt factories moved to Mexico after NAFTA because people would work even cheaper there. Those things happened in the 1990s, by which time big box stores were dominating the economy in little towns throughout the Upper Cumberland, snuffing out small businesses left and right. All these things led to more dire circumstances for working-class and poor people, and seriously undercut opportunities for well-paying jobs, which has added to the desperation.

Here’s another factor. When counties are poor, there is less education. Public schools are underfunded (and therefore offer fewer types of classes, with more students per teacher), because a poor county doesn’t have much tax revenue. Fewer people go on to college, or even graduate high school, in poor counties. This contributes, unfortunately, to a less skilled workforce who command less pay.

This leads me to now. White County is in much better shape, I think, where manufacturing jobs are concerned - we have several factories, and they’re not all in the same industry, which make them more stable. Most of those factories have moved in because taxes are lower and labor is cheaper, though, and in many cases (though not all) the highest paid positions go to more-educated people they bring in from elsewhere.

In fact, a LOT of people are moving in, for various reasons: more people nowadays can work from home, so they prefer to live some place pretty and cheap; many are retirees; quite a few are people who have jobs in larger towns and cities in commuting distance. Scenic beauty, a slower lifestyle, low taxes, and cheaper cost-of-living. I welcome these businesses, and these people - I know many of them, and, in fact, my own lovely Minnesotan wife is one. But I also worry.

Real estate prices are through the roof - and so is rent. Part of this is due to national inflation but much is not. My fear is that the people with good jobs and enough money will be people who have moved in, while the people whose families have been here for generations will get poorer and poorer. Something similar happened in Cumberland County, and violent crime there is among the highest in the region.

I think this can be avoided if the county and city governments take all these factors into consideration and plan carefully. The fact our town square has gone from abandoned shells of buildings to one of the most vibrant in the region is a very good sign, I think.

But we must look out for the working poor who are the backbone of this county.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    


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