Call For New War On Poverty

Child plays on swing outside home, Wadley, Georgia, 4-28-98
AP (file)
A study released Monday calls for a new federal commission to help residents of the South's so-called "Black Belt" overcome the region's long-term poverty.

The 18-month study, commissioned by Congress at the urging of Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., said previous attempt have failed to develop the economy of the contiguous string of 242 counties from Texas to Virginia.

"A lot of these economic strategies in the past have created low-wage jobs, but it doesn't create and maintain the kind of wealth that moves you out of persistent poverty," said Jim Ledbetter, director of the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government, which conducted the research.

Miller wants a federal agency - much like Appalachian Regional Commission, which helps residents in rural mountain counties - to step in.

The study said the commission should concentrate developing a modern work force. Nearly all the counties studied have low employment, poor access to health care, substandard housing, dismal graduation rates, high infant mortality rates and little social and physical infrastructure.

"Generational problems need generational solutions, and, unfortunately, these problems are several generations old," Georgia Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said.

Miller persuaded Congress to spend $250,000 on the study. Benjamin W. Griffith III, president of Macon-based Southern Pine Plantations, matched the money from Congress after he learned about Miller's idea.

The term Black Belt was first used a century ago by ex-slave Booker T. Washington to describe a small section of Alabama known for dark soil ideal for growing cotton. Historians and demographers have broadened it since to include the entire region.

By Barnini Chakraborty