Guest Commentary: In the rural poverty fight, showing up is a first step

by Dee Davis
This commentary aired on National Public Radio on July 17, the day before Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards visited rural Kentucky as part of an eight-state tour focusing on poverty.

My corner of rural America is the Kentucky coalfields. When Bobby Kennedy came in ’68, I was a high school Republican, but rushed home to brush my hair so it flipped across my forehead just like his. And that afternoon, I found myself walking beside him as he toured a street of ramshackle houses in my town. He stepped into one home that I knew. I played ball, even had fistfights, with the boys in that house, and as I stood there looking through the window, me and the national press corps, I realized not just that those boys were poor, but that the whole country was going to see it.

A short time later, Kennedy was gone and so were those rough houses. Replaced by sturdy subsidized homes. Big yards. And the kids we watched through that window all grew up good.

In 1998, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone came to make the same tour. His wife, Sheila, had family all up in here, and they asked me to drive the van. We talked about the RFK trip, schools, health, the joys of rural life. Wellstone was a big cutup. He challenged his wife’s uncle to a wrestling match and explained to a room full of dinner guests that he had converted, he had become a hillbilly Jew.

The last place I took Sen. Wellstone was a meeting of young miners on respirators. Over the soft hiss of oxygen tanks, these men pulled down their masks, smothering* to explain in coarse whispers how coal dust health and safety laws were routinely disregarded.

Afterward he asked me, “Where is the Kentucky delegation?” He went back to Washington and dedicated himself to fixing our coal dust issues. Paul was a senator from somewhere far bigger than Minnesota.
This week, presidential candidate John Edwards is coming to retrace the RFK visit. I wish they were all coming. These things matter. It is not about party; it’s about eyeballs. And there are sights that need seeing.
When no one shows up to witness the obliteration of mountaintops — vast hillsides being shoved into creek beds — then desperate mining practices flourish.

When the rest of the country never sees the broken families and children cut adrift from addiction, then a pharmaceutical company can get off with a fine and a pat on the rump for years of dumping pain drugs like OxyContin into these rural communities.

People will tell you government doesn’t work. But I’ve seen it work. It starts with somebody showing up and making an effort. I have also seen it fail. Mostly that happens when no one’s paying attention.

Dee Davis is a Kentucky native who directs the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, Ky. Contact him at
[email protected]

* “Smothering” is a term used in Kentucky coal country to describe the extremely difficult breathing that results when black-lung victims remove their respirator masks to speak.