Tom Eblen

For lesson on Ky.'s future, a report from the past

Kentucky has no shortage of organizations trying to lift the state up from the bottom of various national rankings of social and economic progress.

So I thought I would report on one of the first and most successful of these groups, the Committee for Kentucky, and what today's do-gooders — and public officials — might learn from it.

I hadn't heard of the Committee for Kentucky until last month, when I was rummaging through the shelves of the used-book store in the basement of Lexington's Central Library.

I came across a tattered copy of Kentucky on the March, which was published in 1949 to tout the committee's work. The book had endorsement blurbs from Vice President Alben Barkley and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The cover illustration cracked me up: a Kentucky colonel, lit cigar in hand, purposely striding toward "progress."

The Committee for Kentucky was formed in 1944 and headed by Harry Schacter, the book's author and president of the now-defunct Louisville department store Kaufman-Straus. Even without the sanctimonious tone of writing so popular in that era, the book makes clear why the committee was formed: Kentucky was a mess.

One in four native Kentuckians had left the state in the early 1940s for jobs elsewhere. One in three Kentucky children received no education; seven of eight never graduated from high school. Kentucky had the nation's second-highest rate of illiteracy. Poverty and ill health were rampant.

The committee's founders, hardened by the Great Depression and energized by World War II, began by engaging the state's academic community in studying how Kentucky had gotten in such sorry shape.

The conclusion was that Kentucky in the early 1900s hadn't invested in education or in developing a modern economy and infrastructure. Like most other Southern states except North Carolina, Kentucky had looked backward rather than forward. There was a "clannish family society" and a lack of diversity in the work force.

The committee concluded that among the biggest issues facing Kentucky were these: health, education, economic development, the use of natural resources, a hopelessly outdated constitution and a visceral aversion to taxes.

And there was this observation: "Somehow Kentuckians diverted to politics the social energy which should have gone into improving business, developing industry, and extending educational and welfare services. Because of our tremendous preoccupation with politics, we seem to have earned the slogan that 'politics are the damndest in Kentucky.'"

Sixty years later, does any of this sound familiar?

The committee then set out to create what it called a "moral climate" for change, using weekly newspaper columns, radio programs, school essay contests and community meetings and projects.

Schacter wrote that some powerful business interests didn't support the committee's work. "Those who were the beneficiaries of the status quo were not at all interested in any change," he wrote. "Those who were victims of the status quo were too apathetic to be much concerned about change."

The committee also faced opposition because it included representatives of organized labor and the African American community, an especially radical move in the 1940s.

Still, the committee sparked civic engagement across the state, contributed to the creation of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and spearheaded a bipartisan effort that led to tax increases for better roads, schools and social services. The committee's efforts laid the groundwork for several progressive governors who followed. (But we're still stuck with that hopelessly outdated constitution.)

In the book, Schacter cites several keys to the committee's success:

It didn't sugarcoat Kentucky's problems. Evidence was gathered and problems publicized. Real, practical solutions were proposed and fought for.

The committee avoided taking sides politically, always emphasizing that its only agenda was improving the lives of Kentuckians. "This was important because the people of Kentucky take their politics so seriously that they have a tendency to read political bias into every important public activity," Schacter wrote.

The committee operated on little money and refused state appropriations to maintain its independence.

After almost six years of work and accomplishment, the committee voted itself out of existence in 1950. It wanted to avoid the temptation to become a self-perpetuating bureaucracy.

Kentucky has made a lot of progress since the 1940s, but other states have made more. We remain near the bottom of many national rankings of social and economic progress, despite six decades of good work of many public-interest groups.

At the moment, we seem to have our hands full trying to survive the current economic slump. But once this crisis has passed, what's the next step, and the next?

What will it take to create the "moral climate" in Kentucky to really invest for success in the 21st century and beyond?

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