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Remarks Concluding the First Roundtable Discussion of the Forest Conference in Portland

April 02, 1993

I'm going to refrain until the afternoon session from getting into the specifics of what we ought to do. But I'd like to say something to the people who were on this panel that talked about the human impact of the present conditions.

Mr. Espy and I are neighbors, and we share a border of the Mississippi River. For almost all the history of this country our two States were the poorest States in America. When agriculture collapsed there in and after the Great Depression, the people who loved my State more than life were forced to leave in huge numbers. As a matter of fact, it's the only way I got elected President. Every third voter in Illinois and Michigan and in the inland empire in California was from Arkansas. [Laughter] But it bespoke a terrible inability to manage a process of change so that people could stay with their roots and their culture and their lives.

Then we got everything going again. And then when he and I came of age in the early eighties and began to assume positions of responsibility, we had another horrible structural collapse in the rural areas and the small towns along the Mississippi River because agriculture and the labor-intensive, low-scale, low-wage industries both collapsed at the same time. And our little towns were turned into ghost towns. We had whole counties, county after county after county, with 20, 25 percent unemployment.

What we found was when we talk about managing the process of change, it was like a lot of what Nadine and others have said. Mike, you showed us those pictures. You had people who knew they had to change or they ought to change, but they had a relatively low skill level. They had limits on what kind of opportunities you could immediately put in the small towns, what the Mayor talked about, and they had a horrendous aversion to moving because their life was more than their livelihood. And then it all became complicated by the incredible pressures on family life, which led more and more families to disintegrate Kinder the burden. And Mike and I literally began our careers dealing with the broken pieces of people's lives against that background.

I say that only to make this point: I cannot repeal the laws of change. In every State in every area of this country the average 18-year-old will change the nature of work seven or eight times in a lifetime now, in a global economy. People who take jobs as bank tellers, for example, even if they keep working for the banks, 10 years after they started what they do will be different because of technology and because of the changes in the economy.

But what we have to find a way to do is to try to make it possible for more people to be faithful to their cultural roots and their way of life and to work through this process in a human way. And if you look at it, there's a lot of analogy here to all these defense workers that are on the food lines in southern California now. I mean, they did what they thought they were supposed to do. They won the cold war, and then we just cut back on defense spending. There they were in the street; nobody had even a theory about how they might go through the kind of process Larry described and be given the opportunity to reclaim their own destiny.

I don't pretend that any of this is easy, but I want you to know that at least some of us have a feel for what this must be like in those little towns. And we'll do what we can.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 12:57 p.m. at the Oregon Convention Center. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and timber business owner Nadine Bailey.

William J. Clinton, Remarks Concluding the First Roundtable Discussion of the Forest Conference in Portland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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