Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Taking on Poverty: Senator Miller's Idea for Empowering the South

Zell Miller went straight for a significant issue with his first piece of major legislation as a U.S. Senator: combating systematic, multi-generational poverty in the South. Inspired by the transformation he witnessed as a boy growing up in Appalachia from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), his bill provided $250,000 for a study to assess if a commission focused on a region known as the Black Belt was needed. The money was matched by Macon businessman Benjamin W. Griffith III to allow for a more thorough investigation.

The term Black Belt was coined in 1901 by Booker T. Washington to refer to a swath of rural southeastern counties stretching from Virginia down to Georgia and west to Texas that had previously been known for cotton production and historically has had a high proportion of African Americans.
Item 1
Excluded from the ARC and the Delta Regional Authority, this area was getting left out of Federal aid. Miller thought it was time to change that, comparing the conditions to the  "Third World" (The Hill, August 8, 2001).

The study, officially called the "Study of Persistent Poverty in the South," was conducted by the University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government to look back at 20 years of data from the region. Compared to the national average, they found higher poverty rates, lower levels of education, and poorer health going back generations. Georgia was disproportionately affected, being home to 25% of the poor in the Black Belt.

Item 2
With evidence from the report clearly pointing to a need in the region, Miller introduced the Southern Regional Commission Act of 2003 (S.527) to the 108th Congress on March 5, 2003. The bill created the Southern Regional Commission with a funding of $40 million a year for fiscal years 2004 through 2008. The focus would be on education, health, housing, transportation, technology, and infrastructure. The report was so compelling that two competing bills were introduced to address the same problems: the Southern Empowerment and Economic Development (SEED) Act (HR 678) proposed by Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama and the SECA (South East Crescent Authority) (HR 3618) sponsored by Congressman Mike McIntyre of North Carolina.

Item 3
In the end, none of these bills made it into law. Miller's bill was referred to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where no further action was taken. Davis introduced the SEED Act on three different occasions, and the SECA legislation was introduced four times in the House by McIntyre and twice in the Senate by Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina. In all cases, the bills were referred to committees but never came up for a vote.

Item 1: Map showing the African-American Population as a percentage of the total population in the Southern Black Belt, 2000 (source: Box V.86, Folder 20)

Item 2: Map of Georgia: counties in red are areas of persistent poverty, counties in blue are covered by the Appalachian Regional Commission, 2003 (source: Box V.86, Folder 25)

3. Cover of the Study on Persistent Poverty in the South, 2002 (source: Box V.86, Folder 27)

Zell Miller's senatorial papers were recently processed and are now open for research.

Post by Adriane Hanson, Digital Curation and Processing Archivist, Russell Library 

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