by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Commentary of the Day - Nov. 24, 2000: The Town That Andrew Carnegie Missed.
According to a recent story circulating on the Associated Press newswires, the county magistrates of Carter County, Kentucky voted down a 6-cent increase in the property tax rate that would have funded the county's first public library. The average cost to a Carter County resident for the library would have been about $30 per year. Given the high rate of illiteracy in the county and the state (49% of Carter County residents over the age of 25 have not graduated from high school, and according to a recent survey by the University of Kentucky 44% of the state's residents are functionally illiterate), $30 a year seems like a bargain rate to fund a public library that might have a significant effect on improving literacy rates among the 25,000 residents of this part of rural eastern Kentucky.
The county magistrates apparently ignored a petition in favor of the library that was signed by 2,200 county residents. One magistrate, Carlos Wells, said that "county residents pay plenty of taxes already, and they've done as well educationally without a library as neighboring counties have done with one." He further stated that 51% of Carter County residents older than 25 have high school diplomas, which is better than the statewide average of about 33%. (Neither of these figures gives the IP much comfort.) On the other side, a local nondenominational minister, Rev. Roy Seagraves, called the library opponents ignorant. He said that most residents would have paid less for the tax than they do for a carton of cigarettes or a fill-up at the local gas station.
The Irascible Professor agrees with Rev. Seagraves. $30 per year per resident for a public library has to be a real bargain. The unemployment rate in Carter County approaches 10% -- nearly twice the national average, yet the benighted county magistrates fail to see the relationship between poor levels of literacy and educational attainment and the high unemployment rate in their neck of the woods.
As he was nearing the end of his life, Andrew Carnegie was determined to give away as much of his fortune as he could. A substantial fraction of that money went to providing public libraries in cities and towns across the United States. No matter what one may think about the methods that Carnegie employed to gain his fortune, this one act probably did as much to increase the wealth of the nation as any act of philanthropy in its history. It is too bad that the residents of Carter County and its county seat Grayson, Kentucky never had the advantage of one of Carnegie's gifts. They might now have a much different attitude towards spending a few dollars in support of literacy.
© 2000 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.