Whitesburg KY

Crime and poverty

The details start to run together as yet another group of county officials is led off in handcuffs, but the picture is clear enough.

This view of corruption, cycling through some parts of Kentucky like a virus, guarantees no relief from another recurring theme: poverty.

Who would invest in a place where prosecutors say the local government is run like a criminal enterprise?

What bright young graduates would return and try to build careers, knowing their efforts could be sabotaged by small-time political grudges?

And what’s the lesson for kids growing up in places where success is based more on membership in a political faction than knowledge, effort or ability?

“Corruption deepens poverty, debases human rights, degrades the environment and derails development (including private sector development) by creating disincentives for investment.” That sentence comes from a United Nations report on Asia-Pacific human development.

It could just as easily have been written about Clay County, where a senior judge, the schools superintendent and six others were indicted last week for their parts in an elaborate vote-buying scheme and where 40 percent of the people live in poverty.

Or Knott County, where the last two elected heads of the county government have been convicted of political corruption and where there is so much abuse and waste in public spending that the county’s books have been beyond auditing for four years. The poverty rate there is 31 percent.

Or Harlan County (32 percent poverty) where a political rivalry leads to murder and a burned body?

What message is sent about Kentucky’s business climate when eastern Kentucky’s biggest highway builder and the state’s former transportation secretary are awaiting trial on federal bid-rigging charges?

Would anyone open a business or build a factory in such a place?

The solution — apart from policing by the FBI and federal prosecutors, God bless ’em — would seem to be for voters to throw the rascals out.

Except in practice it often seems as if all you get is a new set of rascals, even when there is a change of the party in power.

And when voters put a truly public-minded reformer into office, such as Letcher County’s former Republican Judge/Executive Carroll Smith, the local power structure has to expel him.

Eastern Kentucky’s problems are deep and complicated, as are the origins of corruption.

But some aspects are fairly simple; the link between poverty and crooked government is one of them.

—The Lexington Herald-Leader

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