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Senator Wants ‘Black Belt’ Studied

August 17, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) _ In the tiny south Georgia town of Lumpkin, residents consider themselves lucky if they land low-wage work at the local paper mill.

``The poor folks stay in, and the smart folks move on,″ said Ed Cannington, Lumpkin’s mayor for the past 22 years. ``It’s just a mess, just no easy solution to it.″

Stewart County, where Lumpkin is located, sits in the middle of an 11-state swath of counties with large black populations. Most share the same problems: high unemployment, poor access to health care, substandard housing, low high school graduation rates, high infant mortality rates and poor infrastructure.

Historians and demographers refer to the area as the Black Belt, a term first used a century ago by educator and ex-slave Booker T. Washington to describe a small section of Alabama known for dark soil ideal for growing cotton.

Cannington believes a federal initiative to boost the Black Belt could have results similar to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), which has aided mountain communities.

``That was a desolate area,″ Cannington said, referring to the 13-state Appalachian region. ``Now they’ve got all kinds of roads, resorts where people come in and spend the money, and lots of industry. We certainly need something like that down in our area.″

When Congress returns next month, Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., will request a $250,000 feasibility study to look at how an agency modeled after the ARC could help the Black Belt.

``We want to help the Third World across the oceans, but we need to be looking at what has been called the Third World of the United States,″ said Miller, who comes from an area of north Georgia that has benefitted from ARC programs.

The Appalachian commission was created 35 years ago as a partnership between the federal government and states to boost economic development and improve the quality of life for residents. Since its inception, the ARC has helped cut the region’s poverty rate in half, provide water and sewer services to some 800,000 households, and build more than 2,300 miles of new highways.

Miller’s proposal has been churning in his mind for several years, fueled by frequent talks with University of Georgia demographer Douglas C. Bachtel.

Bachtel says the Black Belt never recovered from its slave-based economy of the 19th century and needs federal help to catch up with the rest of the country. Although the Appalachian commission covers some of the same states, no one agency is focusing on the needs of people in the Black Belt, Bachtel said.

``The ARC is just alphabet soup to these folks, it’s not doing anything,″ he said. ``What they need is a concerted, comprehensive effort. These problems go across county and state boundaries, and the federal government can provide the intangible leadership.″

Miller’s proposal is the first attempt to address problems across the entire Black Belt, but other lawmakers have tried to improve conditions in parts of it.

Last year, Congress gave $20 million to the new Delta Regional Authority, a 200-county area in eight states bordering the lower Mississippi River. The agency aims to improve infrastructure and job creation in the region.

Former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a key Delta authority proponent, originally sought an expansion of the ARC. But that idea was rejected by lawmakers who feared it would dilute coverage for other areas.

Winter says he likes Miller’s idea but is skeptical that Congress will endorse it beyond the study phase, particularly with President Bush urging Congress to look for ways to rein in spending.

``The ARC has been one of the most successful programs this country has had in raising the standard of living and quality of life in one of the most depressed areas of the country,″ Winter said. ``That same concept can work with the Black Belt, but the funding is going to be hard to get.″

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On the Net:

Sen. Zell Miller: http://miller.senate.gov/

Appalachian Regional Commission: http://www.arc.gov/