The 2020 Democratic presidential campaign has been surprisingly promising when it comes to addressing poverty. Candidates have offered a host of ideas that would have a significant anti-poverty effect, from universal health care to debt-free college, a living wage, housing for all, universal child care, and more. They have also pledged to push for a debate focused exclusively on the issue—a promise they still need to make good on. But one region that hasn’t received the attention it needs in this or previous elections is the rural Black Belt, specifically the persistently poor counties in 11 Southern states that are home to more than half of the nation’s non-metro poor.

The name “Black Belt” originally referred to the region’s dark, clay soil, before eventually coming to signify its high population of African Americans as well. Today, the region’s roughly 300 rural counties—in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—each have populations that are between 30 and 80 percent African American. As of 2008, the Black Belt was home to 83 percent of African Americans living outside metropolitan areas. We’re just two weeks away from the South Carolina Democratic primary, on February 29; six more Black Belt states will vote on March 3. It’s time for a presidential candidate to not only engage with the needs of people living in this region but also begin to rectify a history of exploitation and neglect.

There is precedent for it: then-Senator John F. Kennedy’s visit to West Virginia during the 1960 Democratic primary. As Ronald D. Eller describes in his 2008 book Uneven Ground, Kennedy was “genuinely stunned” at the mass poverty he saw, particularly that of unemployed coal miners. He pledged on camera to introduce an aid program for the state if elected—and, after he was, he created a presidential task force to explore a unique federal-state-local partnership for regional development in Appalachia. The task force outlined a program that would support highway construction, health care facilities, land stabilization, timber development, water facilities and sewer treatment, and vocational training. But it would take until 1965 for President Lyndon B. Johnson to succeed in pushing it through Congress, establishing the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).

Since then, the ARC has received a total of $38 billion in federal funding (adjusted for inflation), benefiting counties across 13 states. While Appalachia still faces challenges such as labor force participation and poor access to health care, the ARC has contributed to largely eliminating the gap between the region’s rates of high school graduation and unemployment and those found nationally. It has helped both to cut Appalachian poverty from 31 to around 17 percent, and to lower the number of high-poverty counties in the region, from 295 to 107.

The idea for a corresponding regional development program in the Black Belt isn’t a new one. Scholars at Southern universities and some politicians—including Democratic US Representative (2003–11) Artur Davis of Alabama and the late Senator (2000–05) Zell Miller of Georgia—have pushed for it since the 1990s. The black rural South’s current unemployment rate of approximately 14 percent and child poverty rate of 51 percent are double those found in rural counties included in the ARC, according to a forthcoming paper from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

“I’ve heard it my whole life: ‘There’s nothing in the Black Belt.’ Are you kidding me?” says Dr. Veronica Womack, a Black Belt native and executive director of the Rural Studies Institute at Georgia College and State University. “This is a region where the people have always made a way out of no way. You can’t find any more hardworking, caring people—people who have continued to raise families, build community, go to church on Sundays, in spite of all of the challenges that have been put in place.” What has been lacking, Womack says, is a commitment to the region so people can “operate at their fullest potential.”

There have been piecemeal legislative efforts to increase the flow of investment to parts of the Black Belt. But none include all 11 states, focus exclusively on Black Belt counties, or—critically—prioritize community participation in designing and leading a commission to address the Black Belt’s unique challenges. “If you understand the tenacity and the resilience of the people who live there, then you understand the importance of them being a part of whatever solutions you have,” Womack says. “The commission has to know the history—the social, political, and economic dynamics of the place and space.”

In 2000, the Delta Regional Authority (DRA) was created as a state-federal partnership that is presided over by eight Southern state governors and a federal cochair. It includes some counties in five Black Belt states and received $25 million for fiscal year 2019. Seventy-five percent of the moneys are supposed to go to distressed counties, and half of those are required to be used on transportation and infrastructure. However, it does not include most of the Black Belt, and none of its board members are African American. It also lacks the community participation and leadership element that Womack says is key.

Arguably the most promising effort was the Southeast Crescent Regional Commission (SCRC), created under the 2008 Farm Bill. Modeled after the ARC, it encompassed counties within seven Black Belt states, and was intended to focus on funding distressed communities for transportation, infrastructure, job training and entrepreneurial development, telecommunications, and sustainable energy solutions. However, while the SCRC was authorized to receive at least $30 million every year through 2019, it was never appropriated more than $250,000 at a time, and “does not appear to be active” as of March 2019, according to the Congressional Research Service. In contrast, the Northern Border Regional Commission—created in the same Farm Bill to address economic hardship in the primarily white populations of northern Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York—has received steady funding, including $10 million to $20 million in each of the past three fiscal years.

The SCRC was championed by the Democratic Representatives Hank Johnson of Georgia and Elaine Luria of Virginia, as well as majority whip James Clyburn, of South Carolina. “Congressman Clyburn has been committed to the SCRC since its inception,” says Hope Derrick, his communications director. “[He] is ready to fight for more funding when the administration appoints a federal cochair, the last hurdle in standing up the commission.”

Womack isn’t surprised by the lack of urgency the SCRC or Black Belt Commission proposals have received from most of the political elite. “When you start talking about policy that will be interpreted as benefiting a region significantly [comprising] black people, then where is the will to actually get that done?” she says. “Even though the Black Belt has all kinds of people in it, there is also a particular combination that our country has had a great difficulty addressing: poor people, and then poor people of color, and then poor black people.”

Children watching a march

Children watch the march led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. (Photo by William Lovelace / Express / Getty Images)

The need for a commission focused exclusively on the rural Black Belt is most apparent in places like Lowndes County, Alabama, where people are living with raw sewage in their yards.

Lowndes County is located between Selma and Montgomery, and every year tourists pass through, following the route of the historic 1965 civil rights march led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Mostly made up of small rural communities, it has a declining population of under 10,000 people, of whom more than 72 percent are African American. Residents here struggle against the soil that gave the Black Belt its name and made Alabama’s cotton king: Water can’t percolate smoothly through the chalky clay. Traditional septic tanks don’t work there; plumbing backs up when it rains, sending wastewater back into homes through sinks, tubs, and toilets.

The median household income in Lowndes County is $28,000 a year—and the kind of tank that residents would need can cost up to $30,000 for purchase and installation. Some residents resort to “straight piping,” which involves running a PVC pipe away from the home and into the yard, where it discharges untreated waste. As a result of not having affordable waste treatment, families have no choice but to contaminate their own properties. A 2017 study of Lowndes County residents by the Baylor College of Medicine found that 34.5 percent tested positive for hookworm, an intestinal parasite associated with the developing world. After the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty visited homes in Lowndes County and nearby Butler County, he described the waste crisis as “very uncommon in the first world…. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this.”

“You can say all day long that [people] ought to just move, but [they] are born and raised here,” says Lenice Emanuel, executive director of the nonprofit organization Alabama Institute for Social Justice, who has worked with residents on this issue. “They don’t have the money to just uproot their lives and move to Montgomery 25 miles away. Then you have a transportation issue too—getting back and forth to their jobs,” since many work in the community. She also notes that there are businesses—most of which, advocates say, are white-owned—that do have the necessary infrastructure in place to treat their waste, just a half-mile away from homes dealing with raw sewage. Engineers say that simply expanding municipal sewer lines could help solve the problem for some Black Belt homes. For that, the County would need funding.

According to Emanuel, when county residents have invited state officials to come and witness the conditions firsthand, they have been subjected to “intimidation tactics” such as being threatened with arrest warrants, or even fined for lacking septic tanks they could not afford. These reactions from the state have also made it more difficult for residents to feel sufficiently safe to organize and advocate for change. While Alabama says it stopped issuing arrest warrants for sewage in 2002, a black pastor was arrested as recently as 2014 because a septic tank failed and his church wasn’t able to deal with the overflow. Emanuel says that the damage of past warrants is already done: Many people who received them now have a criminal record, and some have lost or can’t find jobs as a result.

Emanuel draws an analogy between the way people are being treated over the waste issue and the KKK’s showing up in their communities—“I liken it to that kind of terror.” She says it leaves people feeling “helpless” and “at the mercy of the institutions and power structures in the community. And it’s similar all over [Alabama’s] Black Belt counties.”

Alabama Democratic representative Terri Sewell sponsored the Rural Septic Tank Access Act—which passed in the 2018 Farm Bill—to help her constituents in Lowndes County and other rural areas access grants of up to $15,000 to install or maintain wastewater systems. This is still significantly lower than the cost of appropriate septic tanks in many homes. An aide to Sewell says she is working to increase the resources devoted to the issue, including the maximum allowable grant.

It can also be difficult for Black Belt communities to navigate the federal protocols to obtain funds—in part, Womack says, because these local governments just don’t have the staff to work on chasing grants. Case in point: Lowndes County is actually eligible for Delta Regional Authority funding, but if you look at the DRA’s most recent grants for infrastructure in Alabama Black Belt communities, the county with sanitation conditions comparable to the Third World is nowhere to be found. In contrast, the DRA did provide $509,000 to extend an industrial park’s water and sewer system to serve Enviva, the world’s largest wood pellet producer.

When Kennedy visited West Virginia in 1960, poverty in the region was stark: 33 percent of Appalachian families lived in poverty, compared to a national poverty rate of 20 percent; unemployment was 40 percent higher than the US average. Many more workers had given up on finding a job and left the workforce. That year, the Conference of Appalachian Governors declared that underdevelopment had meant that people in the region were “denied reasonable economic and cultural opportunities through no fault of their own.” Moreover, inadequate infrastructure for things like “transportation and water resources [had] hindered the local ability to support necessary public services and private enterprise.”

“The ARC is reparations,” says Spencer Overton, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He says that in the coming months, the Joint Center will release a proposal for a Black Belt Regional Commission, hoping to address “an area of our country that once required a large number of people to work there. Those places became automated over time, but large populations are still there and there are fewer jobs. And so we have to come up with policy solutions. That’s the case when we talk about Appalachia; that’s the case when we talk about the Black Belt.”

Kennedy may have advocated for the ARC, in part, because he needed to win over West Virginia voters in the primary. As Michael Bradshaw describes in his 1992 book about the ARC, the senator’s visit to Appalachia came at a key moment in the campaign, when his challenger already had the support of organized labor. Kennedy announced his pledge for a state development program on the day before the vote. He had discussed black Southerners’ struggles during his campaign, but the fact that Appalachia was associated with white poverty made the program politically palatable to white voters and politicians.

Overton points to Appalachia and the Black Belt’s parallel histories of exploitation and resource extraction. In the case of the Black Belt, he says, it has been about “profiting off of cheap labor—whether that is slavery, Jim Crow, or the factories with low taxes, cheap wages, and no unions. Recognizing the unique history and consequent struggles in Appalachia, but not in the Black Belt, is like saying we’re going to treat the opioid crisis as a health epidemic, but we’re going to use the criminal code to deal with the crack epidemic.”

Andy Brack, former press secretary for the late South Carolina Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings and a longtime journalist and editor covering Southern politics, has no doubt as to the root of the structural inequality we see in the Black Belt today. In a 2013 piece, he compared a map showing deep poverty rates with a map of slavery in 1860: “With the blink of an eye, it’s easy to see that these areas easily correlate with where enslaved people lived in 1860. The [Black Belt] is a remnant of plantation life…. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, it’s time that this area starts receiving the same attention that Appalachia did.”

Researchers with the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP)—an initiative founded by Stacey Abrams that focuses on policy solutions and capacity-building for vulnerable populations in the South—recently embarked on a listening tour in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and North Carolina. (SEAP is a fiscally sponsored project of the Roosevelt Institute, where I am a journalist-in-residence.) As they spoke with nonprofits and grassroots groups to get a better sense of local challenges, there were some consistent concerns, including a lack of access to transportation, struggles with raw sewage and other environmental issues, and lack of investment from banks. One participant noted the “weight of racism”—as seen in housing separated by race, resegregated schools, and uneven development between predominately white and predominately black areas. Multiple groups cited the challenge of stigma, from outsiders who viewed their communities as hopeless and lacking potential.

Dr. Sarah Beth Gehl, SEAP’s research director, says that in western North Carolina and northern Alabama, which both have ARC funding-eligible counties, the local-state-federal partnership came up repeatedly—for example, for supporting children’s services, local government capacity-building, and transportation for those in addiction recovery. But when SEAP traveled to south Georgia or south Alabama, where counties aren’t covered by the ARC, the conversations were very different. “It was a lot about a lack of resources and a lack of attention,” says Gehl. “The infrastructure needed to take some innovative approaches to tackling deep challenges in these Black Belt communities—that piece was missing.” Moreover, when it came to what some people on the tour called “the basics needed for a dignified life”—like a grocery store, transportation, housing stock, or medical facilities—the resources just weren’t there.

“Economic progress for the Black Belt requires innovation and deep commitment, which means providing consistent investment to address the interconnected issues that hinder growth and block equity,” says Abrams in a statement to The Nation. “Funding the Black Belt Regional Commission would be a declaration of real intent to finally serve this Southern arc, and it is long overdue.”

It is easy to imagine the arguments against a Black Belt Regional Commission that would be loosely based on the ARC. If there is still extensive poverty in Appalachia, why would we repeat the model? But the ARC has had an enormous impact. In the 2018 fiscal year alone, it reported that its investments would create or help retain more than 26,600 jobs, and train and educate more than 34,000 students and workers. The ARC’s $125 million investment was matched by $188.7 million in public and other moneys, and is expected to attract over $1 billion in private investments.

There are ways too that a Black Belt Commission could be done differently. The ARC covers a huge region, including areas that do not suffer from persistent widespread poverty; funds are weighted toward distressed areas, but the appropriated money is inadequate to cover that expanse. A Black Belt Commission could focus exclusively on distressed communities. Also, much of the early ARC money was spent on highway construction through Appalachia—which, as Michael Bradshaw writes, the original ARC director felt was necessary in order to connect poorer economies with wealthier ones. (He also thought it would show legislators “results.”) While infrastructure is vital, a Black Belt Regional Commission could equally emphasize investment in people—their health, education, training, and the creation of jobs that would allow for upward mobility.

Dr. Veronica Womack says she would start with education—from early childhood to higher education—as well as infrastructure development, including for broadband Internet access, investment in start-ups and rural entrepreneurships, and rural health services for people who currently live in “health care deserts.”

“That’s just a start. Because if you’re not healthy, or you don’t have the proper education and training, the likelihood of you being successful in the 21st century is very small,” she says.

Spencer agrees. “Too often, there has been the notion that economic development is attracting a poultry processing plant—very hard, low-wage, unattractive work without a lot of prospects for growth,” he says. “We need to invest in human beings. It gets back to the concept of Black Lives Matter: We really want to recognize the humanity of people, and invest in people so they can achieve their potential.”

In addition to having local elected officials at the table, Womack says a commission should include community-based organizations that have been working in the region for decades, such as the Black Belt Community Foundation, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, Southwest Georgia Project, and other similarly focused organizations “connected to agriculture and the land—a big piece of how we can be sustainable.” She would also want to invite historically black colleges and universities, technical and community colleges, and land grant and rural institutions such as Georgia College and State University that “understand rural places and are working in the region already.” Crucially, the commission should also hear from activists who are not attached to any particular organization, Womack says, because “the people in their community look to them and their leadership.”

“These folks can tell you exactly where the hiccups are—where the challenges and barriers lie in their being able to develop their communities,” says Womack. “And so, if we are going to hit the mark, it’s going to require us to do a different type of policy and a different type of policy implementation that doesn’t block off people from even being able to participate in the decision-making.”

Yet none of this will be possible without presidential leadership—the kind Kennedy embraced when he visited poverty-stricken areas in West Virginia.

Bernie Sanders, who has called poverty a death sentence, visited Lowndes County last May and pledged to a resident, “This is just the beginning. We have to get attention to the issue, and then we’ll do something about it.” That resident, Pamela Rush, also spoke at a forum on poverty convened by Elijah Cummings and Elizabeth Warren in 2018. Pete Buttigieg noted at one of the debates that poverty hadn’t come up, and that “it deserves a lot of attention”; both he and Amy Klobuchar have struggled to win over black voters. And while Joe Biden has touted his poll numbers with African Americans, he has struggled to connect with younger generations, many of whom feel he falls short in addressing systemic issues.

If any of these or other candidates spend more time in the Black Belt, will they offer so bold a proposal as a Black Belt Regional Commission? Or will they ignore the generational poverty and continued isolation of the region?

Lenice Emanuel says that elected leaders need to take stock of how they are serving, or failing to serve, the people of the region. “We have got to look inward at our own culpability in maintaining these systems of inequity,” she says. “We have to be real with ourselves about that. That’s where the answer lies.”