Hale County and the Poverty-Industrial Complex

In the spring of 2009, I was accepted into the Rural Studio's Outreach Studio, a one-year, post-graduate program for young architects. Two teammates and I spent a year designing and building a house on a budget of $20,000, the ninth in a series of 20K Houses. This research project is ongoing, year-to-year, with different student teams, all trying to address the under-served problem of rural affordable housing. The default paradigm for that population is a trailer home -- a rapidly depreciating, off-gassing, near-impossible-to-insure albatross slung around the necks of already economically stressed people. We finished our house in June, 2010, for MacArthur Coach, a retired construction worker living on Social Security.

After my stint at the Rural Studio, I stayed in Greensboro, Alabama, the county seat of Hale County, for another year. I worked at a small non-profit called YouthBuild, a job-training and GED program for young adults. The students were paid a small stipend (~$80 a week) to attend 20 hours of GED classes and 12 hours of vocational instruction in carpentry. Most of them had left high school for various reasons, or were court-ordered to attend our program. They ranged in age from 16 to 24, and that $80 represented a significant part of their household income. 

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Downtown Greensboro in 1941, via The Library of Congress.

I chronicled both of these experiences in an article for Design Observer awhile back. They came back to mind as I listened to Trends With Benefits, a recent episode on This American Life. A reporter for NPR's Planet Money, Chana Joffe-Walt, visited Hale County to investigate why 1/4 of the adult population is on Social Security disability insurance. One of the first people she interviewed was one of my former students Dane Mitchell. He was in a terrible car accident, damaging his body and impairing his memory. She also spoke to Judge Ryan, who was on the board of YouthBuild, and sent many of our students to us through the local probate court. 

Ms. Joffe-Walt's thesis seemed to be that SSI, because of loose oversight and an army of profit-hungry tort lawyers, had become a proxy welfare system in the wake of Clinton-era reforms to the social safety net. As she says, late in the piece: "Being poorly educated in a rotten place has become a disability in itself." 

I listen to NPR for my news nearly every day, and normally find their reporting to be balanced, fair, and reasoned, but I was taken aback at Ms. Joffe-Walt's tone. There is a general perception in America that the Deep South is the home of all things ignorant, poor, and backwards, a sort of memory-hole where inconvenient truths about our collective past go to die. But most of America has never been to Alabama. 

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Greensboro today, from roughly the same perspective, a little further up the street, via Alabama Possible.

We are familiar with images of urban poverty -- the blocks of vacants I see every day on the South Side of Chicago -- but rural poverty has remained invisible since the Great Depression. Walker Evans wrote "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" about Hale County and Greensboro in 1941, describing the last gasps of an economy based on share-cropped cotton, a system that was little better than slavery for most of the poor (white and black) folks on the bottom of the pyramid. The cotton market died shortly after the war, which propped up demand and prices. Catfish farming has taken over as the dominant local industry, but it too has come under pressure from foreign competition. These economic problems are a tangled web of issues, caused by federal and state policies from Reconstruction on up through today. 

At YouthBuild, we were trying to use education as a lever, helping young folks onto the next plane -- college or a job. But really, we were training them to escape, both circumstance and geography.

If you don't own land or have an education in Hale County, essentially the only work available is at McDonald's, the Piggly Wiggly, or at the catfish plant (which shut down this year). If you don't own a car, you can't get up to Tuscaloosa or over to Selma, where jobs are more plentiful.

So, what happened to YouthBuild? in 2011, the two senators from Alabama joined their Republican colleagues in slashing funding to YouthBuild and associated job-training programs. I lost my job and our students returned to their former lives. Mr. Sessions and Mr. Shelby voted for (Obama's, to be fair) 2011 budget that cut $400 billion in federal spending. However, federal dollars keep Alabama afloat, a phenomenon known at the Moocher's Paradox.

Why are job-training programs so attractive to red-state budget swordsmen? Because it's hard to prove that they work, and the results don't usually show up in neat election-cycle timelines. But, as the NPR folks proved, when you stomp out one program, the same problems will bubble up elsewhere under different names. 

There is no doubt that SSI is a broken system. There is no incentive to ever get better -- you will lose Medicare coverage and the disability payment. Folks need to be better educated about the fact that a disability claim could make it difficult to return to work if they want to (or if they start on SSI as children but grow up to be healthy adults). Systemic changes in health care delivery, agricultural policy, infrastructure development, and education may be needed to create rural jobs and pathways out of poverty. 

I recently heard about the concept of housing as healthcare, or the idea that safe, stable shelter leads to better health outcomes for the chronically ill, disabled, and elderly. It has long been understood that education helps reduce disease and increase life expectancy

So, YouthBuild and the Rural Studio were working in the rational best interests of the community, with their efforts helping to reduce the disability rate in Hale County. 

But I guess we can't build 20Ks fast enough, nor train kids long enough, to keep Hale County from being trotted out for a public shaming at the hands of NPR. In the meantime, 

let's not blame the SSI beneficiaries, condescend to their intelligence, or write off Hale County. Every person in this story was operating as an absolutely rational economic actor. None of them are doing anything illegal -- in fact, they are working diligently in their own best interest to obtain health care and income in an economically suffering area. 

Republicans love rational economic actors! They just hate it when those actors run away with the script.