Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Culture of Dependency

Riffe mural
In spite of being dominated by conservative Republicans, who advocate the classic Horatio Alger virtues of strive-and-succeed, south central Ohio has a pervasive culture of dependence on government – city, county, state and federal. This dependency is obvious, even notorious, in those at the bottom of the social ladder – the uneducated, the unskilled, the unemployed. For them government aid takes the form of food stamps, Aid for Dependent Children, Medicare, welfare, etc. For those at the top, the business and professional classes of south central Ohio, governmental assistance is less obvious, but it’s there too. Want to start a business? Can’t do it by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps? There’s the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership to loan you government money, or the city government to sell you public land cheap for your new business, or tax breaks, write-offs, abatements, or other sweetheart deals. Are you going out of business and have a big empty department store to unload? Look to the city or county government to take it off your hands. Got a house that you are having trouble selling in Portsmouth’s flat real estate market? Look to the state university to buy it for more than you could ever sell it to a private party. Got a friend or relative who needs a job? Look to the city and country government, to the prison or the new jail; to the hospital or the university, but only if you know someone who knows someone. And being a Democrat doesn’t disqualify you. The incestuous nepotism and feeding at the public trough in south central Ohio is bipartisan. The godfather and the dispenser of much of the governmental largesse to south central Ohio, Verne Riffe, was a Democrat. He is enshrined on the Floodwall Murals. He walks these hills.

How did this pervasive dependence of people in Southern Ohio on government come about? Once a bustling manufacturing and transportation hub, where employment was high and commercial competition presumably was intense, the Portsmouth area, as a result of regional, national and global changes that were beyond the control of any individual, class, or political party, began a steady economic decline about a half century ago. The Midwest generally and Ohio in particular, with its large industrial base, was especially vulnerable. Ohio found itself a rustbelt state and Portsmouth a terminal city in a downsizing digitalizing world. Rather than competing for the few jobs and scarce customers in the private sector, collaborating with public officials to tap into public monies became a way of life in south central Ohio. The $300,000 check delivered by Representative Portman for Portsmouth Murals, Inc. just prior to the elections last week is pure political pork.

In south central Ohio there may have been cultural baggage that exacerbated the problem of dependency on government. David Hackett Fischer in Seed of Albion pointed out that the wave of immigrants who settled in the Appalachia region brought with them from the border regions of Britain a shiftlessness, incontinence, and orneriness that was impervious to the American creed of strive-and-succeed. In the politically incorrect classic Taps for Private Tussie, Jesse Stuart, more in sorrow than anger, mocked the dependency of hill people on government handouts, but he said nothing of the dependency, mooching, and hypocrisy of those at the top. There is, for example, the Portsmouth real estate developer who received over 3.7 million dollars in abatements as he first ran down and then razed neighborhoods, in one of which he built dormitories for students but only after the university agreed to reimburse him if the occupancy rate ever fell below a certain percentage. He owns the dormitories, and pockets the profits, but the university, that is the government, takes the risks. That is the way business is done in south central Ohio.