SOUTHERN, RURAL AND BROKEN

James Swift

 KSU alum’s Youth Today essay draws accolades for frank depiction of recession’s toll

In his 24-page essay in the current edition of Youth Today magazine, James Swift, a 2012 Kennesaw State graduate, alternately describes the impact of the most recent recession on his rural, Northwest Georgia community as the “Green Death” and a “five-year stint in purgatory.”

“[It]is an affliction that not only devastated rural families’ pocketbooks; it destroyed the very soul of the countryside,” writes Swift, a magna cum laude communication graduate who now works as a reporter for Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, both published by the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State.

Swift’s account of the demise of once-vibrant Southern rural communities, illustrated with poignant images by Dutch photographer Jan Banning, prompted Donald Mathis, president and CEO of the Community Action Partnership — a national association of more than 1,000 community action agencies — to write: “James Swift's ‘Rural America [after the recession] …’ is one of the most insightful, painful articles I've read in years. Kudos to Youth Today for tackling the anguish of rural poverty — an issue too often overlooked by policymakers and cable news.”

Returning to his family’s home after four years away completing his degree, everything was “older, more broken down,” says Swift, who was born in Rome, Ga., and says he grew up poor, living in a trailer in the Cartersville area. He describes his own family’s experiences and response to the recession, as well as those of more than a half dozen residents and social commentators he interviewed for the three-month project.

Their stories depict the demise of towns and communities since the 1990s boom, when jobs in Northwest Georgia’s textile mills, manufacturing plants, warehouses, retail and other small businesses were prevalent.  But that economy and the accompanying residential development came to an abrupt halt after 2008. Swift describes the ensuing reality in which “bulldozers and backhoes stopped; people close lost their jobs and homes; small businesses began to disappear … and ‘For Sale’ signs popped up at freshly constructed tract homes.”  

Swift does not shy away from a discussion of the decision many rural Americans make “to reject technology and contemporary cultural standards” to hold on to what he calls “our hard-drinking, hard-praying and generally unfulfilling ways of life.”

Still, he says: “My people are not responsible for their miseries. You can say they deserved it for being uneducated and voting against their interests, but they played no hand in what happened to them. My mother wasn’t responsible for NAFTA. My stepfather didn’t help pass the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Nobody in my family sold off toxic loan-to-value subprime loans. We’re not the economists and speculators and MBAs who put more value in profits than people. We didn’t engineer the Green Death, but we’re sure as hell the people who suffer the worst of it.”

Read Swift’s complete essay at http://issuu.com/csjournalism/docs/yt_special_report_18e64feb59c709?e=4285254/3069926

-- Sabbaye McGriff