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A healthier Delta

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During my more than nine years of working in the governor’s office, one thing that became particularly irksome was hearing comments in the state Capitol along these lines about eastern Arkansas: “If only we could saw off about 20 counties, we would be so much higher in the national rankings.”

Imagine the comments that might have been made around the state Capitol a century earlier when much of the economic and political power was in the eastern part of the state. “If only we could saw off those counties up in northwest Arkansas, we would be so much better off. That land will barely support a skinny cedar tree. All those hillbillies have are a few chickens. No one is ever going to get rich off chickens.”

Arkansas would cease to be Arkansas without the Delta, an area that has contributed so much to the culture and history of the state.

I once heard a legislator from East Arkansas who loves the Delta compare the region to a favorite alcoholic uncle who lives upstairs. He’s fun to be around when he’s telling jokes at the dinner table or going to a football game with you. How much better would it be if he could just overcome his problems? The improvement of life in the Delta should be the concern of all Arkansans, whether they live in Little Rock or Rogers.

As large parts of the Delta continue to struggle, so also must our approach at the state and federal levels change when it comes to addressing the problems there. Too many of those involved in economic development are still spending their time and energy chasing jobs that have already gone to Mexico, China and India. For decades, economic development in the rural South meant appealing to companies to come to an area where there were few unions, few regulations, a low cost of living and an ability to pay lower wages.

Many Southern communities were successful in their efforts to attract shirt plants, shoe manufacturers, textile mills and similar businesses. Now, just drive around the region and witness the former plants with “For Lease” signs out front. Yet we’ll see a community build a nice road into what was formerly a pasture on the edge of town, run water and sewer lines to the site and put up a sign declaring it as the local “industrial park.” Those same community leaders fail to focus on the health and education of their citizens.

An emphasis on the workforce must occur if the Delta is to make the switch toward higher-wage jobs, the knowledge economy and the type of large logistics and distribution systems that give the region hope. Since 1970, the number of service-related jobs in the country has increased almost 300 percent while the number of manufacturing jobs continues to decline at an alarming rate. With an aging population, especially in the Delta, there will be job shortages in key areas of the new economy. Will there be enough people educated enough and healthy enough to fill those jobs? That’s a question we ask ourselves each day at the Delta Regional Authority.

The authority, which was created by Congress in 2000 to serve 240 counties and parishes in parts of eight states, recently launched the Healthy Delta program. Why? We’ll never be able to fully develop the Delta economy without a healthy workforce. In its first stage, Healthy Delta will address the devastating effects of the diabetes epidemic in the region. We’ve started an outreach and education effort to encourage Delta residents who might have diabetes to see a health-care professional and manage the long-term effects of the disease. If a person cannot go to work consistently because of illness, it affects worker productivity and ultimately economic prosperity.

Hurricane Katrina made the world aware of the huge underclass in New Orleans. What people may not be aware of is the size of that underclass for hundreds of miles up both sides of the Mississippi River. This is not just a public health issue. It’s an economic issue. The creation of permanent, private-sector jobs is the most cost-effective method of eliminating poverty. Those who aren’t healthy cannot support their families.

In “Rising Tide,” an exhaustive account of the great flood of 1927, author John Barry writes: “A society does not change in sudden jumps. Rather, it moves in multiple small steps along a broad front. Most of these steps are parallel if not quite simultaneous; some advance farther than others, and some even move in an opposite direction. The movement rather resembles that of an amoeba, with one part of the body extending itself outward, then another, even while the main body stays back, until enough of the mass has shifted to move the entire body.”

The problems facing the Delta can be overwhelming when viewed as a whole. But through those multiple small steps, many of which must involve health improvement, we eventually will sober up our beloved uncle in the upstairs bedroom.

As the alternate federal co-chairman, Rex Nelson of Little Rock is one of two presidential appointees to the Delta Regional Authority.

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