“Baltimore is . . . not great. It has the second-highest murder rate (“non-negligent homicide,” in the nomenclature of the FBI) in the country, behind St. Louis. It has some of the worst-performing public schools in the nation. The city’s mayor recently resigned in disgrace after a financial scandal. It is 63 percent African American. It is an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Owsley County, Ky., is . . . not great. It is the poorest county in the United States. It has the second-highest level of child poverty in the country. Almost a quarter of the population under the age of 65 is classified as having a disability. It is 98 percent white. It is an overwhelmingly Republican county.
What does Baltimore tell us about Democratic governance? President Trump thinks he knows. (Kind of weird to hear a New Yorker complaining about the rats in some other city, though.) But we might also ask: What does Owsley County tell us about Republican governance? …”
This is not an entirely unfair question in either case, but you have to be particular about it. …
Owsley County’s median household income is half of Baltimore’s, and its poverty rate is 70 percent higher, but it has a violent crime rate that not only is radically lower than Baltimore’s but much lower than the national average. What’s that all about? Population density? Maybe. The fact that African-American poverty in poor cities has characteristics that are different from white poverty in poor rural areas? Probably. The wisdom of Representative Elijah Cummings? Well . . . “
These are some good questions.
Why is Central Appalachia so poor? Why is Baltimore so poor? Why is Detroit poor? Why is the Mississippi Delta poor? Why is the Alabama Black Belt so poor?
It is not entirely reducible to race. The Mississippi Delta and the Alabama Black Belt used to be two of the wealthiest places in America. Now they are among the poorest in spite of the fact that the racial demographics are essentially unchanged. These areas have always been majority black.
The thing that changed in the Mississippi Delta and Alabama Black Belt was that slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment. Slaves were by far the most profitable investment in antebellum America. All that accumulated wealth went up in a puff of smoke at the stroke of pen.
The banking and financial system collapsed when the Confederacy went down. The result was a world of landless blacks and planters who lacked cash and credit. The sharecropping and farm tenancy system grew out of these conditions. Free blacks didn’t want to work as regimented laborers in gangs anymore. The plantations fragmented into small plots worked by peons who destroyed the topsoil like they did in Haiti. As the magic of the free market played itself out, the South sunk further and further into poverty while the production of cotton soared to new heights until the whole rotten system came crashing down in the Great Depression. Government intervention during the New Deal gave farmers the capital to mechanize the cotton crop which ended sharecropping between the 1940s and 1960s.
Central Appalachia wasn’t always so poor either. The people who lived there had a relatively high standard of living in the age of subsistence farming until the War Between the States. After the war, Northern mining and timber corporations clearcut the area, bought up the mineral rights and systematically sucked out all the wealth to develop the economy of the Northern manufacturing belt. When coal mining shifted to mountaintop removal, there was no longer any need for large numbers of workers. According to free-market theorists, the entrepreneur was supposed to respond and create new jobs, but as was the case in the Mississippi Delta after sharecropping that never really happened.
It was mining and manufacturing industries that brought the ancestors of all these blacks to St. Louis, Birmingham, Detroit and Baltimore. Those working class jobs eventually disappeared due to changes in the global economy after the Second World War. Once again, the entrepreneur was supposed to respond and create new working class jobs, but in reality those workers were never absorbed into new industries. We just sort of forgot about them and left those places to rot.
You can drive all over rural and urban America these days and what you will find is the proliferation of Baltimores. Whites who have been pushed out of the economy by globalization are getting hooked on meth and opioids. They respond to rising social and economic stress by committing suicide. The White suicide rate was much higher during the Great Depression. Similarly, blacks fall into the underclass economy of drugs and violent crime, but are less likely to commit suicide.
What are we going to do with all these people? Better yet, what are we going to do with the millions of people who are about to join them after the next wave of automation hits? I predict that once this problem hits a critical mass in the 2020s or 2030s the current cope of “the free-market will figure it out” will no longer suffice.