Our Nation's Great Disgrace

Late last month filmmaker Diane Nilan and I began tooling around the south eastern United States identifying folks in need, the good guys who sought to help them and the Scrooges who would rather dispose of the poor. Yeah, Gainesville, I'm talking about you -- but not just you.

The last Tuesday of January we traveled from north western Georgia to central North Carolina via Tennessee. As the sun rose-- illuminating the beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains National Forest -- I found myself humming Woody Guthrie's "This land is your land." Though tragically, for millions of folks -- infants to elderly -- this nation has regressed to Guthrie's time and not a bit of it belongs to them.

Part of the time, the "ribbon of highway" we drove bordered projects designed in the early part of the last century to improve the lives of many. We were in Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) territory.

I snagged some info from the federal website www.tva.gov, which says that the TVA is "the nation's largest public power company." In 1933 the U.S. Congress set up the TVA "primarily to reduce flood damage, improve navigation on the Tennessee River, provide electric power and promote 'agricultural and industrial development' in the region." Consequently we were driving from homeless encampments in Georgia to rancid shelters in North Carolina past one of the most profitable investments the federal tax payer has ever made.

As an austerity measure, the Tennessee Valley's vast natural resources were protected, harnessed and used to create jobs for people in the U.S. Initially the TVA fed power to aluminum factories. Now its "power service area covers about 80,000 square miles" including "almost all of Tennessee and parts of Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia."

The TVA was started with our grandparents' tax dollars. Only like any wise investment, it no longer requires any appropriations and their venture now makes us money. Additionally the TVA doesn't just serve the energy needs of the people in that multi-state region but it's one of the largest tax payers in the states of Tennessee and Alabama, contributing a total of $505 million in tax revenue in 2009.

Just 12 days after we were reminded of the value of wise government investment, Diane and I stood in Birmingham Public Library listening to the stories of two young men as they detailed their lives living on the streets.

A shelter director turned film documentarian, Diane was taping their stories. One thing about folks who have worked with and reported on impoverished folks for years: sometimes their frustration shows.

Diane looked at these young men -- both homeless because of poverty and abandonment -- turned to the audience and unloaded, "We must be an incredibly rich nation. We are so rich that we can throw these boys away! We are so wealthy that we take a vital natural resource like our children and we throw them on the street without education or opportunity." Diane asked despairingly, "What kind of a nation throws its children away?"

Almost 80 years ago, because of political will and a climate of need at a time of widespread misery this country invested in her natural resources and the TVA was born. Today our wretchedness is just as great but this time our resources are undervalued and consequently a million or more young people are homeless -- living not just in fear - but with violence, loneliness, ignorance and hunger.

As two of Birmingham's discarded youth spoke candidly about their desire to persevere, the witnesses in the room wept or rocked their heads. Some folks even shouted out in affirmation.

There were 60 or so people in Birmingham, there had been 90 or so in Mobile. Another couple of hundred willing observers were scattered through Florida, Georgia and Louisiana with even more back up in the Carolinas who now know what Diane was telling them: that we aren't rich enough -- we will never be rich enough - to throw away our children.

I'm back home now after our two weeks on the road yielding maybe five hundred brand new eye witnesses to our great national disgrace -- our nation discards millions of people and untallied billions in human capital -- even though we only need to Internet search the TVA to know that it's better to invest in our resources than to discard them.