Heartland Counties Look to ’10-20-30’ for help
A narrow ribbon of crumbling asphalt for the first couple of miles south of Interstate 40, County Road 3830 deteriorates into bumpy gravel before it reaches the tiny community of Clearview in rural Ofsuskee County, roughly halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Main Street has a bait shop, a seemingly abandoned cinderblock shack with a chain and padlock on the door, and a boarded-up storefront with a collapsed roof.
Fifty-three people live in Clearview, according to the U.S. Census, most of them on Social Security and nearly all of them under the poverty line. And with the nearest big town – Okmulgee, population 12,000 – more than half an hour away, they don’t have easy access to food pantries or social services.
A few years ago, state officials and out-of-town volunteers offered to help plant a community garden, where residents would be able to find fresh fruits and vegetables at no cost.
Locals cleared debris from a vacant lot near the center of town and plowed the ground. But seeds never arrived. Weeds took over. And would-be volunteers lost interest.
Like a lot of anti-poverty initiatives, “the idea just petered away and nothing really ever came of it,” says Clearview Mayor Marilyn Jackson. Besides, it was designed to help residents cope with poverty, not escape it, she says.
“What we really need is a sustained effort to change the economy and change the culture,” says Jackson, who moved back to her hometown in 2007 after retiring as a teacher and was almost immediately elected mayor. “Unfortunately, I just don’t see anything like that happening right now.”
However, a bipartisan congressional proposal is being pitched as precisely that kind of long-term effort. But experts are divided as to what kind of practical impact it would have.
The “10-20-30″ plan, created by U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, would require most federal programs to spend at least 10 percent of their funding in counties where at least 20 percent of the population has been living below the poverty line for at least the past 30 years. In other words, it would pump taxpayer money into communities where a sizable chunk of the population is facing persistent poverty.
Clyburn’s idea first appeared as an amendment to the 2009 Recovery Act, where it is credited with directing more than $1.7 billion to poor communities. Now he wants to make it a permanent feature in the federal budget, and Hillary Clinton has made the proposal a major plank in her presidential campaign.
Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan has signaled his support, too, giving Clyburn’s idea a good chance to be heard regardless of who moves into the White House in 2017.
At least 485 counties nationwide with a combined population of nearly 14 million people would Hequalify for 10-20-30 spending, including 14 counties in Oklahoma, according to Clyburn’s congressional office.
Okfuskee County, once a part of Indian Territory that was settled partly by freed slaves after the Civil War, has one of the highest and most persistent poverty rates in the state. With a median household income nearly 25 percent lower than the state average, more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty.
“There is no simple, easy, quick fix for a problem like that,” says Dave Shideler, an economics professor who studies community development projects for Oklahoma State University’s extension services.
“I haven’t found a one-size-fits-all solution. Each person is unique, each situation has its own issues.”
Federal programs don’t tend to appreciate such nuances, Shideler says. And the 10-20-30 concept seems especially indiscriminate, mandating a certain percentage of federal funds to go to certain areas regardless of specific plans for spending it.
“Some communities could take advantage of that opportunity and do great things with the money,” he said. “My concern is that probably more communities would not know how to use the funds effectively, and it would undermine local incentives to be productive.”
Shideler uses TOMS shoes to illustrate his point. For every pair sold in the United States, the company donates a pair to an impoverished child in a developing country.
“That’s great,” he says, “and of course it is done with the best intentions. But what if there’s a cobbler in that local community who’s pushed out of business because he can’t compete with the free shoes? Hand-outs can always have those kinds of unintended consequences.”
In Clearview, if the community garden had ever taken off, it would have provided free produce to needy residents.
“But it also might have taken away any incentive for somebody to plant a private garden and try to sell that produce and maybe earn some income,” Shideler says.
“It takes a lot of discernment and knowledge of local conditions to know whether a project might do more harm than good. Unfortunately, the federal government doesn’t work that way.”
A deeply red state, Oklahoma has tilted Democratic in a presidential election only once since 1948. A federal project — any federal project — will not tend to inspire much confidence among Republicans in the state.
But even a left-leaning think tank like the Oklahoma Policy Institute doubts 10-20-30 would have a broad impact on poverty. Clyburn’s plan could help close the “infrastructure gap” in rural places like Clearview, where residents have limited access to high-speed internet, affordable transportation, health care and social services, says Policy Director Gene Perry.
“Beyond that,” Perry says, “it’s important for needs to be accessed on a community-by-community basis in a way that include local partners who have the information and personal connections to know what the best approach will be.”
Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California-Davis who studies rural poverty, concedes that 10-20-30 would not offer “the ideal balance” for including input from local officials. But she seems more optimistic about its potential to make a difference.
Growing up in the wooded hills of northwest Arkansas, Pruitt saw rural poverty first-hand and up-close, especially around her grandfather’s house across the state line in Stilwell, Oklahoma, where two out of five residents live below the poverty line.
That experience, as well as her academic research, convinced her that persistent poverty needs a “multi-year, multi-dimensional approach,” she says.
“Education. Job training. Social services. Job markets. You have to invest in all of those,” she says. “And not just once. Time and time again.”
Unlike many other anti-poverty schemes, 10-20-30 doesn’t involve just one particular program, and it doesn’t address just one particular aspect of poverty, Pruitt says. It promises across-the-board investments. And not just for a limited period of time, but indefinitely.
Clyburn’s idea wouldn’t increase federal spending or change how federal dollars are allocated, Pruitt explains. Infrastructure spending would still go to infrastructure. Health spending to health. Education funding to education. And so forth. Clyburn would just change where some of that funding would be spent, redirecting it to communities with the most needs.
“It’s the kind of broad, long-term investment,” Pruitt says, “that could have a very significant impact on these communities – eventually. Nothing would change overnight.”
Michael Overall is an award-winning reporter for the Tulsa World and also serves as an adjunct journalism instructor at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a new effort at Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity to feature reported journalism as part of its efforts illuminate news and trends in the field to promote a bipartisan dialogue. To submit pieces, please contact Bill Nichols at Nichols@TFreedmanconsulting.com.
The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight’s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty.