We Should Leave No Community Behind
A Commentary by Congressman James E. Clyburn (SC-06)
Assistant Democratic Leader, U.S. House of Representatives

In my home state of South Carolina, Orangeburg County is home to a 5400 ft. runway airport, two Class A railroads, two interstate highways, eight U.S. highways, two universities, a technical college, 67 miles of shoreline along the state’s largest lake and more than 90,000 citizens. Orangeburg seems to have all that is necessary to be a strong and vibrant economic engine. The County, however, has a median income of $32,694 and is consistently ranked among the nation’s ten poorest counties with a population greater than 65,000, ranking eighth based on 2008 data.

When I was elected to Congress, I was told that in spite of the infrastructure enumerated above, Orangeburg and other counties along the I-26/I-95 corridor would always be drags on the state’s economy unless we solved their most pressing challenge: access to clean, safe, drinkable water. I immediately went to work to solve this problem. Today, because of good cooperation and planning by local officials and targeted congressional expenditures, in the Orangeburg County town of Santee located on I-95, we have a state-of-the-art water plant with reaches into four surrounding counties. We have great hope that we can begin to turn the economic conditions around in these historically depressed communities, but further assistance is needed.

In the United States, there are 474 counties where 20 percent or more of the population has been living below the poverty line for the last 30 years. The counties are as diverse as our great nation; Appalachian communities in Kentucky and North Carolina, Native American communities in South Dakota and Alaska, Latino communities in Arizona and New Mexico and African American communities in Mississippi and South Carolina. They lack access to quality schools, affordable quality health care and adequate job opportunities.

This is not a partisan issue. In 2009, these counties were represented by 43 Democrats and 84 Republicans in the Congress. Democrats represented 149 of them, with a total population of 8.8 million; Republicans 311, with a total population of 8.3 million; and 14, with a total population of 5. 3 million, were split between Republicans and Democrats. I represented seven such counties.

When we drafted the Recovery Act, I fought to ensure that no communities were left behind. We all know that President Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” which was credited with ending the Great Depression, was not a good deal for many of these persistent poverty counties. At my urging, the Recovery Act included a provision that directed at least 10 percent of Rural Development investments to communities where 20 percent or more of the population had lived below the poverty line for the last 30 years.

I understand that my 10-20-30 amendment in the Recovery Act was responsible for funding 4,655 projects totaling nearly $1.7 billion in persistent poverty counties. I can speak of two counties in my district that benefitted from this program. Construction began last year on 51 miles of water lines to the Brittons Neck, Centenary and Gresham communities of Marion County, South Carolina. These communities had tried for decades to replace their contaminated wells with a water system, but could not afford the matching funds required by traditional federal programs. Through the 10-20-30 program, the Marco Rural Water Company received a $5.8 million grant and a $2 million loan to provide clean, potable water to these communities for the first time.

In Orangeburg County, three similar water projects are being funded through the 10-20-30 program. One of those is a $5.6 million investment to bring potable water to a Global Logistics Triangle on I-95 at U.S. 301 that will soon be home to a Jafza logistics, industrial and distribution park. That public investment is leveraging an estimated $600-$700 million in private investments that may ultimately create up to 10,000 new jobs in this persistent poverty county. That is an investment in innovation and creativity that will yield significant dividends in the near future and hopefully lift Orangeburg County out of its quagmire as one of the ten poorest counties in the nation.

I am urging Congress to include the 10-20-30 approach in future funding proposals, and expand it to all federal agencies. It doesn’t require additional funding — only the stipulation that at least ten percent of any agency’s appropriated programmatic funds be invested in 10-20-30 communities.

We have been so heavily focused on easing the national unemployment rate that we have not given adequate attention to communities that are suffering from chronic distress and Depression-era levels of joblessness. They must be included in our efforts to get the entire nation on the right track. If we provide them the engines they have been lacking, these communities can join the rest of America to compete and “win the future.”