Disabling Help

The Working Catholic: Disabling Help
by William Droel

Good intentions are not enough. Indeed, good intentions can be harmful.
Tarence Ray provides a case study of wasteful, ineffective and disabling social improvement programs in “Hollowed Out: Against the Sham Revitalization of Appalachia” for The Baffler (https://thebaffler.com/; 10/19). He assessed 15 organizations in his region that received money from Appalachian Regional Commission plus he looked at other economic development projects. ARC is a federal agency with state cooperation. It began in 1965 and is targeted to West Virginia and parts of a dozen other states. The particular funding arm that concerns Ray began during the administration of President Barack Obama to create employment that would offset job loss from the coal industry.
“Wading into the bureaucratic refuse of these [15] organizations was exhausting,” Ray says. He was bounced from one employee’s phone extension to another; several groups didn’t respond to him at all. Only one located in southwest Pennsylvania supplied information.
The organizations are strong on narrative-building (i.e. verbiage) but never really do much, Ray discovered. It could be that leaders of these groups are sincere. They presume that enough high-sounding talk and writing will trickle down to Appalachian culture, will change mindsets and will somehow create prosperity. Some of their goals are simply impractical. For example, proposing a Silicon Holler or tech utopia in rural areas that lack adequate broadband infrastructure. Or in one of a handful of other examples, a program suggests that a former miner train as an elevator operator in a region that has only a few four-story buildings.
Ray’s essay is not a critique of government bungling, though that occurs. These same organizations get foundation grants, which encourages the government to renew funding, which attracts more grants. His target is the crucial fallacy of these and other Helping Interventions: The priority is never to help the underemployed help themselves. It is not a bottom-up agenda. It is top-down assistance always packaged with an “enduring faith in technology.” Developers and investors will acquire property, build facilities, install hardware and garner consulting contracts. College-educated planners, supervisors, technocrats, lawyers and others will oversee the project. Some of whom will be located on the scene but many of whom, after an initial visit, remain in an office with a high-grade computer in Boston or Washington. If a rationale is needed, the government and foundation leaders invoke “trickle-down.” And again, maybe they are sincere in their incorrect belief.

How can a responsible citizen, an ordinary worker avoid a government-sponsored, foundation-funded merry-go-round to nowhere? Run away from jargon. Ray supplies several terms associated with “sham” programs: entrepreneurship, business incubation, targeted, deployed, innovation ecosystem, business coach, sustainable infrastructure, feasibility study, cultural heritage assets, elevating awareness, opportunity zone and the like.
One word that doesn’t appear in all this is organize. The alternative to neoliberal paternalism or maternalism is organized citizens who through their church, their union, their precinct and their self-funded community organization tell big tech and big government what they want in their schools, their communities and their environment. And they say, “Let’s negotiate.”

On this topic of disabling help I recommend Listen, Liberal by Thomas Frank (Picador, 2016). He is particularly good on the use of jargon to avoid genuine social change. Also read Winners Take All: the Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giridharadas (Knopf, 2018). And we would benefit from once again considering any of the books by Ivan Illich (1926-2002).

Droel’s booklet, Public Friendship, is available from National Center for the Laity (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629; $6)

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