By John James Snidow
All over the world, economists have been arguing for years about how to make regions prosper. Roads and infrastructure? Good government? Outside aid? There has been bitter disagreement, but few answers, except one: human capital formation (education) leads to economic prosperity. Period.
Regions that equip their citizens with skills and knowledge will grow. Those that don't won't.
Here in Appalachia, we've tried many things. We've tried building roads. We've tried using government spending to ease the pain of poverty. And we've tried our own version of foreign aid: generations of well-intentioned volunteers who have come to these hills hoping to help.
Some of these efforts have worked: Kentucky poverty is now far less severe. Others have failed: Nearly 25 percent of working-age males in Eastern Kentucky are neither working nor looking for work, a truly depressing figure that is only possible when welfare abuse runs rampant.
And yet the one thing that economists agree spurs growth — education — we have long neglected. Certainly, there are those in Kentucky who work tirelessly to promote education: some to reform the system overall, others to educate individual children. They certainly did for me, and for countless others. Still, we must do more.
Yes, education is expensive, but poverty is even more so. Yes, some of the children we educate will leave our mountain hollows in search of better jobs, or more education or both.
But if we believe that our first priority is to secure our children's prosperity — wherever they may find it — then we must accept that part of the bargain, too. There's no such thing as a free lunch, as the economists say, and even progress comes with a price. This is an inherently long-term solution. But building an economy is a complex task; there are no miracle cures, no quick fixes. We will not see the returns from this investment for many years, perhaps not even during our lifetimes. But, to borrow a line from President John F. Kennedy: Let us begin.
Nobel Prize-winning economicst Robert Lucas once said: "Is there some action the government of India could take that would lead the Indian economy to grow? If so, what, exactly? If not, what is it about the 'nature of India' that makes it so? The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else."
I don't believe there is something about the "nature of Appalachia" that has kept our region poor. And I don't believe that the people of Eastern Kentucky are any less smart or hard working than anyone, anywhere.
But what I do believe — because it happens to be true — is that other regions have invested more in education than we have over the past century, and we are now reaping what we have sown. We have a lot of catching up to do, and until we do we really shouldn't be thinking of anything else.