Limits to Growth In Rural Kentucky

16 03 2009

If one chose to write about the quality of life in Appalachia and the many externalities that work together in a cyclical fashion that reinforces this often substandard condition of living one would amass a database of testimony and haunting stories of hardship. In fact hardship and hard living is the one thing a great number of Kentuckians are born into. In a land of beautiful wilderness that has been isolated by its own construction exists a proud people, of which little was known about until policy makers of the 50’s and 60’s decided to improve their living conditions. The rural country people have such an attachment to their county and immediate geographical vicinity that an outsider might be confused by and often described “clannish” nature of the local people. This clannish nature could be viewed very differently depending on the agenda of the outsider. A popular view expressed in Uneven Ground by Dr. Ronald Eller is that “poverty problems in my community were the result of cultural deficiencies, antiquated values, and low expectations”. This is perhaps the most popular ideology that has been the focus of social workers and politicians alike, and after decades of attempted fixes from government programs there has been little change. Anyone studying the region’s lack of modernity will be bombarded with images of a shoeless people that industrialization forgot about. In fact many stereotypes exist because they contain some iota of truth, but why the punch lines have not changed in half a century is the real problem we face. The impoverished children in late night infomercials could just as easily be found in Appalachia, the “other America”. To better understand what causes this geographically isolated phenomenon we must look at the geography of Appalachia itself. The isolation of the region’s semi-agrarian society in the early days of statehood was one of self sustainment. People grew what they needed, and were sustenance farmers. This was before the predominant idea of the consumerist society became the type a model of the American Dream. People lived off the land in a simple way of life. To call this a lesser way of life would question our own views of what quality of life really means and proves the definition of the American dream is not universal.

There are 120 counties in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, numerous considering the state is 26th in geographical size. In the 19th century the idea was that a county resident could make the horseback journey from their home to the county seat, and no more than a day’s ride from one county seat to the next. This construction of local government could likewise enable anyone with significant authority to create their own county and appoint themselves to a position of local power. The concentration of local power might be the single biggest obstacle to modernization of the state and has helped retard development and subsequently placed power of the many into the hands of a select few. Many people got very wealthy at the expense of their poor neighbors in the past century. The geographical isolation of the Appalachian region of Kentucky has long been its Achilles heel to future growth and development. Most development funding the region has received in past decades has consisted of getting roads into isolated, steep sided hamlets. The underlying purpose of the roads of course was to get the mineral resources out of isolation and onto train cars to be sold far away from the mountains where it was mined. This process continues today, and there are many people with vested interests that have kept the coal moving for generations. Poor people would sell mineral rights for virtually nothing to the coal companies who mined their property out from underneath them. The rich coal seams below the poor people was the only concern for the local elites and those who had access to this resource built empires on the backs of their neighbors. An important theme of Dr. Eller’s book highlights the exploitation of the people of Appalachia for their natural resources. The Local government enabled the local business interests of those who helped finance the campaigns of people they want in a position to help them continue their crusade for coal, and didn’t even pay the miners in fungible money. This is the beginning of our problem-the cyclical poverty of a rich land inhabited by poor people.

This condition continues to exist, even facilitated, by a close knit local government and its desire to maintain its old fashioned control of local politics and public policy. We will label development as our condition to be modeled in the archetype of Limits to Growth as outlined in Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline. We can deconstruct the Limits to Growth model and by attempting to understand the design and how it exposes the contrapositive, pushback nature of a slowing action on a growing action. In its simplest form it could be compared to the yen and yang, or for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The action, our growing action, would be government funded programs and the flow of capital into the region for the past several years and why poverty still exists regardless of the influx of capital. The counteracting or slowing action to the invested money is the incomplete or incompetent infrastructure that disseminates the money to various social programs that are handpicked by local elites and elected officials. When money is available in small towns and rural areas, those who dispense the funds and the old fashioned infrastructure becomes a burden to positive social progress. This slowing action is not immediately visible to those waiting for change to occur, there is a delay from the time that capital is invested until it is spent, and there is very little change. This delay makes the pushback of the slowing action less visible to concerned policy makers who keep injecting funds for decades and still witness the public outcry that nothing is being done speed development in Appalachia. Figure 1a shows the original model of the Limits to Growth, figure 2a is the same model with our condition (lack of development) inserted. This archetype is the simplest in structure of the nine types outlined in The Fifth Discipline. Although simplistic in design, it answers some key questions to a huge problem that many argue over the remedy. The carrot of the model is the pushback cycle, any change someone has ever wanted to make has been met with some level of resistance, be it social, financial, or logistical. When one attempts to bring about change to a region known for staying the same the pushback will occur on many levels. In figure 2b our inserted variables into the archetype expose the developmental problems that have kept Appalachia in a perpetual cycle of dependence on federal program dollars, and why we fail to reach the desired goal.

The diagram 2b is our hypothetical model of appropriations of federal dollars and its flawed design and implementation. Simply throwing money at a problem only compounds the problem. The Limits to Growth model 2b the applied influx of federal aid to the Commonwealth on the left side Growing Action, with questionable or limited results Is influenced by the limiting condition on the right side of local interest and local corruption. The limiting condition shown on the right side of the diagram is the externality that causes a slowing action which counterbalances the desired growth effect. For every amount of invested money, on the left side, there is an established hierarchy in the region that gets to decide where this money is spent. This is the pushback of social development. The same institutions and people in local government award contracts to their constituents that might happen to own a paving company. There is a X amount of money needed to build a road and only a select few to do the job. In the newspapers it might look promising that a new road is being built, but the area might really need a new library. The company X who has always built the roads in the region has a vested interest in keeping contracts for new construction, and is also a big contributor to the local elected official who awards the development money. This is an example of the pushback effect of government dollars coming into an area for one purpose, but being spent in a manner that will never achieve the desired goal.

In 2b the condition in the center of the model is labeled Development; the intended growing action is the government funds granted to answer the public’s cries for assistance. On the right side of the model is the slowing action, or the problem that is limiting growth; in this model it’s the misappropriation of funds and incompetent infrastructure. Due to the limiting of the leverage point which is the local corruption. This negative leverage point slows the entire model for government financial assistance. This balanced cyclical construction of the Limits to Growth model can be affected by either side of the model. Any increase of government investment on the left side, is pushed back by the slowing action on the right side. The model is balanced by either side, the harder you work on one side, the harder the other side pushes back. This dependent nature that limits growth in the model nurtures a type of hollow infrastructure than is incompetent to invest government appropriations to get a positive effect from the monies coming into the area. The way to offset the slowing condition is to apply leverage to the Limiting Condition. The leverage point or Limiting Condition is where you put some action and get large results after identifying the problem that is causing the slowing action. Leverage the limiting condition theoretically brings even small change which will bring larger benefits to Slowing Action, by retarding its rate of interference to the desired Growing Action. The Limiting Condition might be the elimination of local corruption and better oversight by federal agencies. The Limiting Condition can halt the Slowing Action enough so that the Growing Action could build momentum like the snowball in the diagram and gain momentum to reach the desired condition. One example of this Limiting Condition that was quickly struck down was the appointment of Sergeant Shriver in the early years of the war on poverty that helped create small organizations to deal with the situation, and they operated autonomously and without intervention by the local governments in the counties. According to Eller, this understandably angered local officials who had no say where this free money was going and was quickly handed over to local jurisdiction.

Everyone in most any administration have an idea of what they think a solution to the poverty problem should be. Since the War on Poverty launched in the 1960’s there has been an influx of improvement dollars to improve lives by bringing jobs and education to impoverished people. Where these dollars are used is one of the agents of the model of the limit of growth theory. They might produce obvious short term results like electricity and expansion of public utilities to rural areas, or schools and municipal buildings to bring opportunity to future generations. The latest trend has been to build large spec buildings in deprived counties and offer tax based incentives to manufacturers to locate their factory in this location which offers low to medium skilled employment pool. These attempts have been futile towards the goal of socioeconomic improvement into the region that seems to reject all attempts at improving the lives of Appalachians.

What we think is best for poverty riddled areas of Kentucky is false. The way we have approached the problem for the past several decades is wrong. The real function of a system archetype is to expose irregularities by mini-mapping the condition we wish to better understand. The archetype is our tool to analyze why past attempts of various government funded programs have not reached fruition. All previous attempts by policy makers pumping infrastructure money into the growing action is counterbalanced by the established local interests that become the slowing action. The only realistic solution is to put weight on the limiting condition, which would theoretically halt the slowing action long enough for the growing action to gain momentum and snowball towards the promise of prosperity.

2,122 words

Figure 1a: The Limits to Growth Archetype

The Limits to Growth Model


Figure 2b: The Pushback Effect

Development Corruption& special interest

Government Program Money incomplete infrastructure and misuse of funds




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