By MARSHA MERCER
Barack Obama was not yet born in 1960 when young John F. Kennedy, campaigning for president in West Virginia, saw hungry children, men without jobs or hope, and streets with boarded-up houses.
Stunned by the poverty and grateful for the landslide victory the state’s Protestant voters gave him in the primary, Kennedy never forgot. As president, he steered the nation on a path to boost economic development in Appalachia that’s still going strong after half a century.
Today, another young president’s eyes have been opened to devastation in a different region. Stung by criticism that he has shown too little emotion about the BP oil spill, President Obama is making the Gulf Coast his Appalachia. After several visits to the Gulf Coast to assess the widening damage, Obama Tuesday declared “a commitment to the Gulf Coast that goes beyond responding to the crisis of the moment.”
Beyond BP’s compensation for people whose livelihoods have been disrupted, Obama said in his Oval Office address, “it’s also clear we need a long-term plan to restore the unique beauty and bounty of this region.”
In April 1963, JFK created what became known as the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission and called for an economic development action plan. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Appalachian Regional Development Act. Every president since has sent millions of dollars to the region to fight poverty and create economic growth.
Now comes Obama, who has named Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi, to work with states, communities, tribes, fishermen, businesses, conservationists and other Gulf residents to design a long-term Gulf Coast restoration plan.
Few details of what Obama envisions have emerged, but one thing is clear. He’s setting a priority that could long outlast his time in the White House.
Obama says he wants to help Gulf Coast residents recover from the economic disasters of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and to help people keep the way of life generations have enjoyed. The twin tasks of repairing the environment and the economy will be harder than fighting poverty in Appalachia.
A key difference between aid for the Gulf Coast and Appalachia is the source of the money. Obama insists that BP will foot the bills for Gulf Coast restoration. And yet, taxpayers often wind up footing bills they didn’t see coming.
Environmental damage to the fragile Gulf Coast region began long before the oil spill. Louisiana loses a football field of land every 38 minutes, the Associated Press reported. Obama proposed $40 million in his 2011 budget to begin restoring the Louisiana and Mississippi coast. Also under discussion is a massive, multi-billion-dollar project to redirect the flow of the Mississippi River and save wetlands.
In the days before 24-7 news and underwater Web cams, a book pricked America’s conscience. In 1962, “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” by Harry M. Caudill about poverty in Kentucky shocked readers about life in the mountains. People found it unacceptable that Appalachians lived in deplorable conditions while many others basked in 1950s’ prosperity.
Typically, few people consider how much or how long we’ll pay to fix a problem. It’s safe to say nobody imagined millions of dollars would pour into Appalachia indefinitely. Obama in his 2011 budget proposed $76 million for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal-state partnership.
To be sure, as agency budgets go, $76 million is small change. Nobody is suggesting it’s time to pull the plug on Appalachia. The regional commission gets good marks for administration, and there’s much work to be done. Appalachia, whose boundaries have been expanded over the years to include parts of 13 states ranging from southern New York to northeastern Mississippi, still has not achieved economic parity with the rest of the country. The recession has hit parts of Appalachia especially hard.
We will never know what would have happened in Appalachia had JFK not lifted up West Virginia and neighboring states. Conditions might be far worse than the double-digit joblessness that plagues many counties.
In 2010, a different region and a new crisis have captured our imaginations. Our hearts break over the plight of fishermen and sealife. Once again, Americans are compassionate. We’re emotional. We demand action on behalf of oil disaster victims.
But emotion is easy; accountability is hard. We need success.
Otherwise, Americans not yet born today will wonder in 50 years why Appalachia and the Gulf Coast are still suffering.
© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.