Can’t Budget

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 16 No. 3, "Mint Juleps, Wisteria, and Queers." Find more from that issue here.

The stories are pouring in from all over these days. A small town in Georgia devastated by two plant closings. Public schools in West Virginia struggling to pay teachers and buy supplies for students. Families uprooted from across the South living in tents outside the nation’s capital, vying for a handful of construction jobs. 

Such stories are far from new: millions of Southerners have been suffering severe economic hardship since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980. But as the Reagan years draw to a close, the mainstream media suddenly feels free to cover, however belatedly, the true extent of the crisis. 

“The U.S. has been suffering more than a farm crisis or a drought, more than a cyclical downturn in the Western resource belt,” The Wall Street Journal reported this summer. “It is in the midst of a coast-to-coast, border-to-border collapse of much of its rural economy. . . . In many places, it has been going on for 10 years, even as the nation’s roaring economy brought about a rebirth of tired cities and enfeebled industries.” 

Two Southern states have been especially hard hit by the crisis. West Virginia and Louisiana, both heavily dependent on the energy industry, have the highest unemployment rates in the country, nearly double the national average. Nearly 40,000 people left Louisiana last year alone, and West Virginia has lost a higher percentage of its population this decade than any other state in the nation. 

Both stales have tried to bolster their failing economies with government spending. They were the only Southern states that exceeded the national average for per capita spending last year. They were also the only Southern states whose general fund budgets decreased in 1987. 

The impoverished budgets in both states serve as a sort of economic weather vane, an indication of which way the wind is blowing. They are the legacy of President Reagan, who drastically cut federal aid to the states and left them to flounder through the worst depression since the 1930s. Many analysts say the budget cuts and hard times will soon catch up with more prosperous states and metropolitan areas. 

Budgets, like facts, arc stubborn things. In West Virginia and Louisiana, the bottom line is written in red ink. As journalists Kate Long and Richard Baudouin report in this special section, nearly eight years of federal cuts and economic neglect have combined to push both states to the brink of bankruptcy. Beleaguered policymakers from the Gulf Coast to the Appalachians are struggling to respond to the crisis — and some, following Reagan’s example, have actually suggested cutting services for the poor and taxes for the rich. Clearly, the battleground of stale budgets goes beyond impersonal figures in a ledger. Behind the numbers lies the reality of millions of Southerners, living in poverty and looking for a better deal.