In 1962, with Night Comes to the Cumberlands, Harry M. Caudill moved a president to take action against the island of poverty known as Appalachia.
The Appalachian Regional Commission was formed and later the Kentucky Area Development Districts.
After more than half a century, we are still fighting poverty and facing a new fiscal crisis.
This year marks the centennial celebration of the National Extension Service, established by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. For nearly 100 years, the University of Kentucky Extension Service has annually taken hundreds of thousands in local property taxes from every county, set up district and local commissions, built countless buildings and provided programs on youth, family science, community and economic development. Yet Eastern Kentucky remains poverty-ridden, low achieving and very unhealthy.
These two efforts, on their respective websites, catalogue their many successes. But both — as with many other university, nonprofit and faith-based entities — have failed to release the region from the deadly grip of poverty and all the dehumanizing byproducts of substance abuse, despair, joblessness and crime. Why?
Perhaps Caudill might have given us the answer in his writings from the middle of the past century. He blamed coal industry owners and the industries that lived off of them like the bankers and politicians. I think they had great influence but were only part of the problem.
After being part of the community for decades, one thing seems clear: the problem, friends and neighbors, is us.
Not those out of work or suffering from substance abuse. It is those with educations and jobs who make policy and implement programs. Somewhere along the way, we lost sight that a community thrives only when the weakest members thrive. In the search for financial security and good jobs, we've wandered away from the reason many of our organizations were formed. It has become about career security instead of fixing the problems.
Think about it: Which is worse for the community — a person who uses a food-stamp card to buy pop and sell it for cigarettes or a group that manages a $200,000 budget and uses it to promote its program regardless of community impact?
If dawn is to come to the Cumberlands, the Shaping Our Appalachian Region project might provide a vehicle.
But first, every one of us must learn the issues and speak up. Every citizen needs to talk with their politicians instead of about them. Every worker and business owner needs to appreciate the value and challenges of the other.
We need to nurture a culture of building communities instead of keeping our heads down to survive. Fear of change is a hard nut to crack, but change we must. We have to take a hard look at existing programs and honestly — with the good of all in mind — figure out why they haven't worked. No one person or group has the answer to fix the problems.