2-14 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 20, 2004

A few years back, Dr. Ron Wimberley helped publish quite the intriguing study on Alabama’s Black Belt — of which we’re included.

A publicist dubbed the professor “one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the rural South and the Black Belt region.” And with that sort of introduction, you can’t help but think a solution to the social and economic challenges of our region is yet a research paper away. Well, here’s the gist of Wimberley’s apparent breakthrough:

“Along with an alarmingly high rate of persistent poverty — one out of five people is poor and one out of four children is poor — the region shares social ills such as higher rates of unemployment…”

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Kind of takes your breath away, doesn’t it? You mean we’re broke AND we’re unemployed? Starling.

If our region of the state — West Alabama and the Black Belt — has one force more suppressive than any other, it’s the national appetite to analyze and patronize us to the point of utter ruin. (Wimberley’s study was conducted at North Carolina State University.)

Tell enough people we’re the “Third World,” and soon enough they’ll believe it. Hey, want to take a trip to Demopolis? Want to visit Livingston? How about a weekend Marion?

Forget it. Who wants to visit a region where they don’t even have electricity yet?

I’ve lived in this “Third World” for all but three years of my life. Even since the parents forced me to make my own living, I’ve read or reported on enough studies like Wimberley’s to make me dabble on the internet for an entire night searching for other atrocities like it.

Here’s a sampling:

A graduate student in Mississippi named Ntam Baharanyi wrote a study entitled “Focus on Black Belt Counties: Life Conditions and Opportunities.” The purpose of the study was to “assess the impact of socioeconomic factors on sustainability of agriculture in the Alabama Black Belt.” The study was published 10 years ago.

In 2000, former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller — soon to be a retired U.S. Senator — held a press conference to announce the proposal of a commission “to address Black Belt counties across the South.”

Thanks, Senator.

In the article announcing the new commission, a couple of state professors brilliantly reiterated the need for yet another commission.

“No one has worked to change the problems because they have been largely invisible,” on educator told us.

Yet another academia type really pinned the problem: “People are poor down there, and it just festers. It gets worse.”

Now we’re getting somewhere.

You’ll have to pardon the sarcasm, but we’ve had so many organizations and professors and politicians and journalists analyze us that we’re all but immune to help. And worst of all, the leaders of our state may qualify as the most guilty.

Poor former Gov. Don Siegelman. He spent four years in office riding back and forth along the highways of the Black Belt and nothing happened. During his first year in office, Siegelman appointed the Alabama Commerce Commission, which prepared one of the kindest little reports you’ve ever read about the Black Belt.

“The cornerstone recommendation in this report is the establishment of economic development regions which will give the people and resources in a region the opportunity to work together in a coordinated fashion to begin to address their own local barriers to economic success,” said the report.

That commission’s proposal took almost a year to develop. That was four years ago.

Siegelman was replaced by Gov. Bob Riley, who made it breathlessly clear during his first month in office that Alabama’s Black Belt was a “top priority.”

He signed a resolution creating the dubiously named “Black Belt Commission” more than a year ago. They haven’t met.

About a week ago, a new commission — this one with four score members from Mississippi and Alabama — convened at the University of West Alabama to discuss a new alliance that will bring economic utopia to the region.

Initially, Riley and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour were scheduled to attend; interesting neither showed.

About a fifth of the way through the meeting at UWA (which was extraordinarily planned and well attended), I asked one of the facilitators when the actual plan for economic development would be discussed.

“Oooh, that’s coming up next,” the excitable person said, pointing to Dr. Phil Sutphin — chairman of the latest and greatest alliance on regional prosperity for eternity.

Sutphin stood before the audience for about 15 minutes, at which point he walked viewers through a mind-numbing PowerPoint presentation detailing the problems of our region. We learned the population of each county, the median household income, homeownership rates, education levels of the population, and — yep, you guessed it — average wage per job.

That latest paralyzing analysis came complete with color booklets and a shiny cover.

Obviously, you can’t change a problem if you don’t know the problem.

After 30 years of educating our commissions, and after 30 years of our commissions creating task forces, and after 30 years of our task forces recommending a new analysis, we get the point.

You know, if every person who has ever participated in a commission or a study or a task force related to this region put $5 in a pot, we’d probably have enough money to build our own Hyundai plant. But as long as we keep recycling studies that say the same thing, we’ll continue to feed America’s appetite to analyze and patronize us to the point of utter ruin.

We know we’re broke. And we know we keep getting broker (poor grammar acceptable only in Third World countries).