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Both Sides with Jesse Jackson

What Can the Government Do About Poverty in Appalachia?

Aired March 26, 2000 - 5:30 p.m. ET


JESSE JACKSON, HOST: Welcome to BOTH SIDES. For many Americans the news is good: Job growth is up, crime and welfare rolls are down, the stock market is creating a burgeoning number of millionaires. But the picture of prosperity doesn't tell the whole story. Millions of U.S. residents are still poor.

Is the problem intractable? Have we done all that we could possibly do?

Today, we're going to focus on America's invisible poor with two guests. Joining me from Knoxville, Tennessee is Jesse L. White Jr. He's the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission. With me in Washington is Cecil Roberts. He's president of the United Mine Workers of America.

Welcome to the program.

Begin our discussion in a moment, but first some background from John Bisney.


JOHN BISNEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): By most indicators, America's economic health has never been better: record job growth, low inflation, and thanks in part to a booming stock market, a growing number of wealthy U.S. residents. The Clinton administration's also touting good signs for some workers at the lower end of the economic ladder.

MARTIN BAILEY, CHAIRMAN, PRESIDENT'S COUNCIL OF ECONOMIC ADVISERS: In the last five years or so, people at the bottom have been getting good increases as well as people in the middle and at the top, and that's very encouraging: a very encouraging sign.

BISNEY: But beneath the positive news is the persistent problem of widespread poverty. Characterized as "The Invisible Poor" in a recent cover story in the Sunday "New York Times Magazine," journalist and author Jim Fallows writes that "In this era of riches, prosperous America doesn't seem hostile to the poor. It's more like simple invisibility because of increasing geographic, occupational and social barriers that block one group from the other's view," Fallow writes.

The spotlight was turned on those living in abject poverty last summer when President Clinton toured Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The goal was to get U.S. businesses to invest in areas that remain economically depressed.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a time to bring more jobs and investment and hope to the areas of our country that have not fully participated in this economic recovery. We have an obligation to do it.

BISNEY: While the president's new markets initiative was largely met with praise, it's real impact remains to be seen. And so even while the boom times continue, the problem of how to best help the millions of Americans still mired in poverty goes unanswered.

For BOTH SIDES, I'm John Bisney.


JACKSON: Jesse White, you of the Appalachian Regional Council, welcome to us from Appalachia today. But what was startling about "The New York Times Magazine" pictorial essay was that invisible poor are white. The visible poor are black and brown. But most poor people are neither black nor brown. They're white. They're female. They're invisible, they're young.

Why are the poor whites so invisible?

JESSE L. WHITE JR., CO-CHAIRMAN, APPALACHIAN REGIONAL COMMISSION: Well, I think in the case of Appalachia, Reverend Jackson, a lot of it has to do with geographic isolation. These people are in about 110 severely distressed counties in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, southern Ohio, southwestern Virginia, northern Tennessee, enshrouded by the mountains and often overlooked and often forgotten.

The people in Appalachia in the metropolitan areas are doing pretty well.

JACKSON: Cecil Roberts, you...

WHITE: But the people...

JACKSON: I'm sorry. I'm asking Cecil, because Cecil's from Cabin Creek -- Cabin Creek, West Virginia...


JACKSON: ... down in the hills. Why are poor whites -- and there's 30 million impoverished whites in Appalachia, 30 million.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, I think one of the problems we have when times are good, like they are now, I think people tend to believe everybody's doing all right. We had this program that both the Democrats and Republicans patted themselves on the back for about ending welfare as we know it, but we forgot to end poverty as we know it. And there's a lot of folks down in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky -- you and I saw many of those folks on a week-long bus tour -- who want to work. Some of them are working. They're just not making much money, don't have health coverage, suffer from many diseases and illnesses. That's a real problem for this country.

JACKSON: Why? We've seen the tremendous economic boom, more billionaires, more millionaires. How has the economic boom hit Appalachia?

ROBERTS: It hasn't hit Appalachia, Reverend Jackson. That's the point.

JACKSON: Jesse White, you're down there now in the hills. What does the economic boom mean to the people of Mud Creek in the hills of Appalachia?

WHITE: Well, it hasn't reached some of them. As I mentioned a moment ago, people in the metropolitan areas of Appalachia have done pretty well. And frankly, I'm in a city right now that's done fairly well: Knoxville, Tennessee, and Oak Ridge down the road. But if you get very far out in the rural areas, you still find persistent underdevelopment, poverty, lack of education, lack of infrastructure.

JACKSON: You know, some years ago, Jesse, when John Kennedy ran for the presidency, he held up a black baby in his arms, in his arms in Harlem. It was dismissed by the press cynically as that's what liberals do. But Robert Kennedy held up an exposed, invisible white baby in his arms in West Virginia. That baby's bloated belly and that baby's running nose captured America's attention.

To that extent, Cecil, why is it critical that the invisible white poor be a part of the national dialogue?

ROBERTS: I think back to a quote that I read from Reverend King, he says, "I can't be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be." And I don't think America can be what it ought to be until Appalachia and the rest of the country that hasn't experienced economic boom is what it ought to be. And that's what this is all about to me.

JACKSON: President Clinton launched a debate, a race debate, a race dialogue, a kind of East-West debate about black and white. Would the position of the country be different if there were a debate about North and South, about have and have-nots, and not just about black and white?

ROBERTS: I think sometimes issue debates about black and white tend to divide us when really the issue is what's wrong and what's right. I think all Americans would like to have a decent job and experience the economic boom that others have experienced.

We have people buying two and three yachts trying to figure out how many they really need, and then in some parts of the country, people are tying to keep a car running to get to work. And that's something we can't have if America's going to be what it ought to be, Jesse.

JACKSON: Jesse, since you're in the hills and you're head of Appalachian Council, what is life in Appalachia really like to residents today?

WHITE: What is life like...

JACKSON: In Appalachia today.

WHITE: Well, it's -- it's pretty good in most places. But again, in the more remote, isolated areas, it's still pretty tough. We've got, as I mentioned, about a quarter of our counties still classified as severely distressed with 2 million people that live in them, and there's still a lot of challenge there, although there's a lot of promise as well. These are resourceful people, hard-working people. They just need training. They need opportunities, and they need the wherewithal to participate in the economy.

JACKSON: We're going to come right back, but as I traveled down those hills, I saw many people living in trailers, children going to school in trailers, working 2 and 3 miles beneath the ground as mine workers. Saw young men, 40 years old walk around with packs on their backs, oxygen tanks trying to negotiate their breath. They were dying from black lung disease.

There's a story to be told about Appalachia, and let's talk more about it. We'll be right back to talk more about the invisible poor.


JACKSON: Back again to talk with Jesse White of the Appalachian Regional Council and Cecil Roberts of Mine Workers.

Jesse, you're down there in Appalachia. The visible poor is black, it's brown, it's urban. The invisible poor, mostly white, female and young.

Why is that region of such rich soil, such hard-working people still mired in poverty?

WHITE: Well, a lot of it has to do with the severity of the terrain. A lot of it has to do with the failure of early government policies, quite frankly. The interstate highway system, for example, bypassed the mountains. And we at the ARC are now in the process of building a 3,000-mile highway system to fix that. A lot of it is underinvestment in education and training, overdependence on declining industries.

It's really been the failure to reach into the hardest-to-reach places with the kind of investments we need in human resource development, in infrastructure, in entrepreneurial development, venture capital, the requirements of business creation, job creation and wealth creation. And although we're making a lot of progress, we've got a long way to go.

JACKSON: When I hear politicians talk, Cecil, they about the answer is tax cut, the answer is charter schools, the answer is vouchers, the answer is incentives to work. What does that sound like in Cabin Creek, Kentucky, West Virginia?

ROBERTS: Well, you know, the people that are underemployed or unemployed -- and let's say this. These are some of the hardest- working people I've ever met in my life. They'll work anywhere if there's an opportunity.

But this stuff about a tax cut, ought from ought's ought back where I'm from.

JACKSON: What is it?

ROBERTS: Back on Cabin Creek, ought from ought's ought when you're talking about...

JACKSON: Now spell that, Cecil.


ROBERTS: I'm not sure. I think it's O-U-G-H-T would be ought...


ROBERTS: ... from ought. I mean, zero from zero is nothing. So if you don't have a decent job to start with and are not paying a lot of money in taxes to begin with, someone saying they're going to cut your taxes doesn't mean a lot. If they're going to give you a voucher for schools that don't exist in your particular area, it don't mean much.

The debate has got to be about something different. The debate to me has to be about how are we going to get investment into eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia and parts of Ohio that you and I saw on this trip that has been nonexistent for a hundred years.

JACKSON: Jesse White, for the working poor in Eastern Europe and parts of the Middle East, we have OPIC, we have incentives to invest, we have hedges against risk, we have start-up capital. Do we have the same kind of plans to reconstruct the working poor of Appalachia than say we have for foreign aid?

WHITE: Well, I think that's one thing President Clinton and you tried to call the attention of the nation to and rectify last July on the new markets trip, that we need programs to develop these American markets right here in our midst, our own people, the same way we do foreign development, which is not to say we shouldn't do both. But we certainly should have problems like the new markets initiative to develop our own markets at home.

JACKSON: Is Appalachia a viable market?

WHITE: It's a very viable market. It's proven itself to be a market. It just hasn't gone all the way into the hart of Appalachia yet, but there's tremendous market potential there. JACKSON: Cecil, you come from the region. You work in the region. Is there something wrong with the people or something wrong with the system? What's missing here?

ROBERTS: You know, when things don't work out in Russia, there's something wrong with the government. Something don't work out here, something wrong with the people. Absolutely nothing's wrong with these people: some of the most hard-working, dedicated, God-fearing Americans anywhere. They would just like to have the same opportunities that many others have had in this country.

JACKSON: If Vice President Gore and George W. Bush were to have a debate in Appalachia -- they had one in Harlem, they had many in Iowa and New Hampshire -- what would a debate in Appalachia do this fall for this area?

ROBERTS: I think it would do a great deal. It would draw a lot of attention to this problem of underemployment, unemployment, poverty in the area.

What I think we need to do is stop talking about the stock market, because most of these people care a lot more about the supermarket than the stock market. So I think a debate would be a real challenge to two -- these two gentlemen who would like to be president, because this is a hard problem. This is a problem that'll take real leadership.

Keeping the stock market going may not be as hard as trying to figure out how to get employment down in Appalachia.

JACKSON: Jesse, the same question: What would one to three great debates this fall in Appalachia mean to that region and to the country?

WHITE: Well, I think it would be in the same category as the president actually going to the region. There's no substitute for the nation's political leaders going to a region, discussing its problems and talking to the people and with the people who live there.

JACKSON: Today we're talking about the invisible poor: how can the nation's leadership take light into dark places and heat into cold places. We'll be right back to talk more about the challenge of our nation and the working invisible poor.


JACKSON: Welcome back. Jesse, you co-chair the Appalachian Regional Commission. Just what does the commission do? What do you need to do your job more effectively?

WHITE: Well, the commission is a federal-state partnership designed to bring economic development to the 406 counties that we work in. And I think the main thing we need at the commission in addition, obviously, to adequate federal funding for the commission is the commitment from the private sector, the foundations, the nonprofit sector to come join with us in helping develop this region. We cannot do it alone. State governments cannot do it alone. We need partners. We need the private sector. We need foundations to get the capital to get the investments in the region to get it up and running.

JACKSON: Jesse, ordinarily, we think of Appalachia as kind of Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky hills. What is the range of Appalachia?

WHITE: Well, the ARC is, as I say, 406 counties. It includes all of West Virginia and parts of 12 other states. It's 22 million people. It goes...

JACKSON: States such as? States such as?

WHITE: It goes from southern New York, Pennsylvania, western Maryland, Ohio, the top of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, tip of South Carolina. It cuts a swathe right down through the middle of the East Coast of America.

JACKSON: Let me ask this question, Cecil. I never hear senators from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alabama, Mississippi ever mention Appalachia. What's -- what's missing?

ROBERTS: I think what's missing is the obvious. Many of the poor counties in the Appalachian Regional Commission jurisdiction are not necessarily in the areas that you -- in the states that you just mentioned. You take Owsley County, which you remember well -- that was one of our last stops when we swung through Kentucky. That may be the poorest county in the United States. But yet, they've gotten some of the least amount of attention over the years. You would think that the counties and areas where the most desperate need is where most of the money would go.

To the Appalachian Regional Commission's credit, over the last couple of years, that -- that has changed. There's been a demand basically from the federal government that some of the power counties that are suffering the most get some of this money.

JACKSON: Jesse, given the psychology of the country, if the invisible poor become the visible poor, if the debate shifts from black and brown to white faces, will it make a difference in the national political debate in your judgment?

WHITE: Well, I think it very well could, although I think, you know, the face of the poor can be found anywhere. And I would hope that the nation would respond to the needs of the poor whatever color they are. But I think it would be naive to say that it might not make some difference.

JACKSON: What difference would it make, Cecil, you as a coal- miner, if in fact Owsley County were on the news as opposed to Harlem?

ROBERTS: I think it would make a great deal of difference. I think it takes race out of the debate. I think whenever you try to talk about poor, rich, middle class, and you're in a black neighborhood, people tend to say, well, that's a stereotype, that situation. When it's focus on white people trying to get by the best that they can, have not had the opportunity that maybe others have had in this country, then that changes the debate from black and white to wrong and right.

JACKSON: So the nation's less able to profile working-class poor white people?

ROBERTS: Well, you can't profile. It's just a fact that they haven't had the same opportunities.

One of the things that'll be very interesting is to have a debate about how to change this situation, how to bring investment into these regions.

We have people who've been on the news ever night who are politicians and talk about how we have to bail out Russia. We want to bail out this, Mexico. We're going to bail out this country. But no one ever talks about, well, let's do something for our own here in some of the remote areas of this country. And I'd like to see that happen.

JACKSON: We'll come right back in a moment, and my final segment on this issue of the invisible poor and the challenge to make them visible and do something about it. We'll be right back.


JACKSON: Jesse White, there are many who believe it is about as good as it's going to get: full employment in economic terms, a boom on Wall Street. Some believe it can't get any better. What does that mean for Appalachia?

WHITE: Well, I think what it should mean for Appalachia is now we have the resources. The president has put the federal budget in order, and now the nation has the resources to reach into these areas that have not participated fully in this boom and finish the job. And I would hope that there's a renewed federal commitment to making the investments necessary to making this region and all of its people fully competitive. There's no reason not to now.

JACKSON: Cecil, is lack of resources why Appalachia has been left behind?

ROBERTS: I think that's part of it. I think there needs to be an investment in this area. I believe the power of the federal government needs to be utilized here to bring investment into this area.

If we can take investment, American corporations to some of the most remote areas of the world, the Third World nations, and encourage them to go there and give them incentives to go there, incentives to do well and use taxpayer dollars to do that, why in the world can't you take taxpayer dollars and incentives to get corporations move into Appalachia?

JACKSON: But I see campaign debates about campaign finance reform and who's digging up the most dirt on whom every night on television, but then I never hear black lung disease. A coal miner dies every six hours from black lung disease. I never hear about people living in trailers in Appalachia with a school in trailers in Appalachia.

What will it take to get these issues on the front page of the national debate?

ROBERTS: I believe that acceptance by the two candidates who are saying they want to be president of the United States to say, hey, I have some ideas about how to resolve this problem that's been with us for so many years. Let's come on down to eastern Kentucky and have a debate or southern West Virginia and have a debate, and let CNN and NBC and CBS see how these people can respond to the needs of this area.

And if they could do that, that's who ought to be president.

JACKSON: Let me express my thanks to you, Cecil Roberts from the Mine Workers, to you, Jesse White, of the Appalachian Regional Commission.

One thing is clear. The people of the Appalachian region have the power to change the course. Remember Kennedy beat Nixon by 112,000 votes, less than one vote per precinct; Nixon beat Humphrey by 550,000 votes; Carter beat Ford by a 1.7 million. Twenty-two million people if they go forward by their dreams and hopes, not backwards by their fears and cynicism, have the power to change the course.

That's all for this week's program. I'll be back next Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Eastern. Until then, thanks for watching and keep hope alive.



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