What went wrong with the South?

In an article last weekend for the Washington Post, Chico Harlan describes the difficulties facing young people growing up in some of the nation’s lowest wealth communities. “The Deep South’s paralyzing intergenerational poverty is the devastating sum of problems both historical and emergent — ones that, in the life of a young man, can build in childhood and then erupt in early adulthood,” says Harlan. These young people “deal with traumas at home and dysfunction at school — only to find themselves, as graduates, searching for low-paying jobs in states that have been reluctant to fund programs that help the poor.” An accompanying infographic, which maps life expectancy, children living with one parent, unbanked households, median household income, and income mobility, poses a solemn question:

Deep South

Image source: Washington Post

What went wrong is centuries of enslavement and systemic discrimination that resulted in the immense disparities we see today—but most news stories don’t capture that context. What went wrong with the Deep South is, in many ways, what went wrong with America. In the South, the effects of our nation’s enduring racism are most apparent, and it’s hard to overstate the continued legacy of slavery. The American economy was built on the wealth created by a violent system of free labor. The economic motivation for that system was most apparent in the agricultural South, and so people in this region went to increasingly great lengths over time to preserve it in spite of contradictions with American ideals of equality. The narrative of racial difference that was created to justify that system is still with us.

Our region’s history of economic dependence on free, forced labor, and then later on cheap, exploitative labor, meant there were minimal opportunities for wealth creation for those outside the economic elite, and particularly for people of color, and there has been unequal investment in community resources that are beneficial to the entire population, like schools, transportation, and healthcare. Centuries of slavery ended only to usher in an era of racial terrorism and legal segregation. With restricted economic opportunity and nonexistent political power, black Southerners had limited capacity to invest in community institutions like schools to ensure their children received quality education (although there are many notable exceptions). Even as the policies and systems that overtly and legally segregated communities were dismantled, the emergence of new ways of drawing lines has concentrated affluence in some places and poverty in others. These policies and behaviors are often developed without consciously racist intentions, but they have served to reinforce the importance of place in determining opportunity.

So, what went wrong in the South? A long history of social and economic inequity, which is most apparent in the places that pop out on the Washington Post’s interactive map. The historical roots of this swath of concentrated poverty and low mobility can easily be traced back to the 17th century (or even to the Cretaceous era, as the places with the largest populations of enslaved people were where the soil was the best for growing cotton, which follows the pattern of ancient coastlines). In 1860, 78 percent of people in Sunflower County, MS, the setting of Harlan’s article, were enslaved. A map showing the percentage of the total population that was enslaved in 1860 by county bears remarkable similarity to the pattern of those Washington Post maps:

Slavery, and the racist beliefs that were constructed to support slavery’s endurance until the Emancipation Proclamation, was not an inevitable economic system. And, even though we understand its roots, the structural racism and segregation that followed were not inescapable. When we understand the history of racism in the U.S.—how the design of our economy and our policies created these current conditions, rather than seeing them as accidents of fate or unknowable mysteries—then we understand that poverty, a lack of opportunity, and inequality are not intractable. Because we do not know that history, we are perplexed by the situation we have found ourselves in (“What went wrong in the South? No one really knows!”).

We need to stop reacting to dramatic regional or group differences in outcomes as baffling idiosyncrasies and start digging into them for information about how well our society as a whole is functioning. We should focus our efforts on the people and communities that appear to be outliers, because those are the places where the failures of our system are most apparent, according to Rosanne Haggerty. “What would work for those outliers is actually something that would work for anyone,” says Haggerty. A community’s Infrastructure of Opportunity must be designed to provide reliable options for all young people, regardless of family wealth and background. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people also tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too (see Equality of Opportunity Project), indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for the economic and educational success of young people are beneficial across the board.

Breakdowns in educational and economic opportunity like those Harlan describes in the Deep South may appear unique to a small number of communities, but they are indicative of broader systemic failures. Harlan mostly focuses on the issues facing economically isolated rural communities, but the accompanying map of low mobility shows that low-income young people are struggling even in some of the South’s most prosperous and dynamic metros. If we want to make national progress on equity, opportunity, and mobility, then we have to figure out how to reduce disparities in the South and in those communities where economic insecurity is greatest. The Infrastructure of Opportunity varies noticeably in quality, consistency, and accessibility across the U.S.; that doesn’t have to continue to be the case.

Quality STEM Jobs: Who Is Getting Them?

We’ve got some STEMpathy if you’re kind of over stories about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs, and the education and training required to get them. But there’s a good reason for all (or at least most) of those stories: employment in STEM occupations tends to be higher-wage and higher-growth than other occupations. With startlingly low economic mobility for young people in the South, STEM jobs could provide new pathways into stable careers.

In many Southern metros, STEM employment makes up a significant portion of the workforce. According to Bloomberg Business, in Austin, Huntsville, Raleigh, Durham, the figure is at least 10 percent:

STEM jobs

Source: Bloomberg Business

These jobs typically pay better than many occupations, and they are more likely to have the characteristics that allow for economic security and wealth building, like paid sick and family leave, health insurance, and retirement accounts. The gap between median pay in STEM occupations and non-STEM occupations is substantial in many Southern metros:

STEM pay

Source: Bloomberg Business

The prevalence of these jobs in certain areas is not based just on luck; they are areas that have seen sustained investment in innovation and education over time. From Bloomberg Business descriptions of Huntsville and Durham:

Like many high-tech locales, Huntsville owes its 21st century economy to an initial burst of funding for government research. It was a town of 16,000 residents working in cotton mills and on watercress farms when, in 1950, the U.S. Army relocated a team of rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal, a local installation that produced chemical munitions during World War II. In the decades that followed, NASA designed, assembled, and tested the rockets that put the first men on the moon. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and dozens of lesser-known aerospace and defense companies have swarmed to Huntsville.


Durham, N.C., has a STEM labor force that’s 13.9 percent of all workers. Its biotech economy started with a sprawling research park that began to grow around the same time that Huntsville’s high-tech transformation was getting started.

The Bloomberg author notes that these jobs pay good salaries and those salaries support other draws—like good public schools, restaurants, and arts and entertainment that make the communities appealing to potential employers and potential workers.

Job growth doesn’t happen automatically, and it’s happening less and less through traditional industrial recruitment. STEM jobs are growing in the places where there’s been investment in the services, amenities, and institutions that support those sectors, and particularly in places with a highly educated workforce or the ability to attract one.

These occupations are typically high-skill and require targeted training and education, but the majority are going to populations that are the most likely to connect with high-wage work anyway: white men. Women and people of color are underrepresented in STEM fields. Women make up less than a third of all STEM employment in every Southern state:

STEM women

Source: IWPR’s Status of Women in the States

Southern cities that are seeking to take advantage of STEM job growth must make sure that the pathways into those jobs are strong and equitable. We have to consider what barriers, both real and perceived, are preventing women and people of color from pursuing those careers in greater numbers.

As the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research found, women are significantly less likely than men to get degrees in STEM fields, and the proportion of women receiving associate’s degrees in STEM fields decreased between 2001 and 2009:

STEM gender

Source: IWPR

Though these data show a significant gender gap, community colleges are an important part of the pathway to STEM careers for both women and men, as detailed in an article this week by Lane Florsheim in Marie Claire magazine. More than half of people who receive bachelor’s degrees or higher in a STEM field completed some of their coursework at a community college, including 55 percent of women (63 percent of women with young children) and 44 percent of men.

Florsheim cites research that suggests community colleges are often more accessible and inviting to women interested in these fields:

… a recent study by two Iowa State University researchers found that women at community colleges reported a friendlier atmosphere in STEM-related classes than at four-year colleges. “It is just such a global community,” one student said of her community college experience. The researchers found that similarity in backgrounds and lifestyles made women feel more comfortable stepping into leadership roles in activities and assignments. Strong advising and support from faculty also marked a major difference. Since so many students transfer out, they often work closely with guidance counselors to develop transfer plans. “The two-year plan keeps me focused, and saved me with financial aid,” another woman said.

That welcoming atmosphere, where women and people of color are encouraged and expected to thrive instead of being seen as unusual, must be sustained at community colleges and created at other educational institutions. It hasn’t always been so unusual: computer programming was once thought of as women’s work, but it became overwhelmingly male starting in the mid-1980s as stereotypes about gender and computer science shifted:

Comp sci grads

Source: NPR

Stereotyped messages about who “belongs” in a field matter to young people who are trying to envision themselves in careers.

Holding that vision is difficult to do while women in corporate leadership, especially tech corporate leadership, are few and far between. Only 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs (women make up 15 percent of C-level executives and 17 percent of board members, even though research shows that boards with women tend to outperform board without women). A TechCrunch analysis of 84 “unicorn” companies, or U.S. software or internet-oriented companies that are backed by venture capital and valued at more than $1 billion, found that only two CEOs are women, 30 percent have no women in senior leadership, and approximately 70 percent do not have women on their boards.  And a Fortune analysis of 191 major U.S. venture capital firms—the crucial backers of tech innovation—found that only 5.6 percent of decision-makers and 10 percent of all investment professionals were women.

The power of these stereotypes is seen in a study of academia that found fields that prioritize brilliance and raw talent tend to have lots of white men in them, while fields that emphasize the importance of hard work tend to have larger percentages of women and people of color. Unconscious bias influences who we think of as brilliant and talented—if you don’t look like the typical applicant, then the employer may not be as able to see your unique talent. Women make up 20 percent or less of PhDs in physics, engineering, and computer science; it’s understandable that young women may not see STEM fields as welcoming for either education or employment.

For the Southern economy to thrive, our workforce needs the skills to compete in the global economy and emerging fields—and we need those skills be to accessible to a broad range of workers, including women and people of color. STEM skills will often be highly technical and specialized, requiring both postsecondary training and job-based experience. Developing equitable education and hiring systems can help us shift patterns of economic mobility and ensure that more Southerners can connect to living-wage careers.

Economic Insecurity in the South

Last week the Census Bureau released new data on income, poverty, health insurance, and inequality. Here are some quick insights on economic insecurity in the South.


The South has the lowest median household income in the nation, and black and Latino households have the lowest incomes in the region:

Median Household Income by region and race or ethnicity, 2014
All White, not Hispanic or Latino Black alone Asian alone Hispanic or Latino, any race
Northeast  $ 59,210  $ 65,762  $ 39,332  $ 78,408  $ 37,456
Midwest  $ 54,267  $ 59,171  $ 31,611  $ 62,480  $ 41,758
South  $ 49,655  $ 55,888  $ 35,306  $ 75,859  $ 42,091
West  $ 57,688  $ 63,869  $ 37,246  $ 74,718  $ 45,636
Source: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement

When looking at the distribution of people in each region by national income quintiles, we see that the South is overrepresented in lower quintiles and underrepresented in upper income quintiles:

Percentage of people in each income quintile by region, 2014


(If the distribution of incomes in each region matched the national distribution, there would be 20 percent of people in each quintile.)

Given the region’s comparatively large population (around 37 percent of the US population) and the overrepresentation of low-income people, the South has 42 percent of U.S. people in the lowest income quintile. The South only has 34 percent of people in the highest income quintile. For young people starting out on the lowest rungs of the income ladder in the South, the chances of climbing it as an adult are smaller than in any other region.


The poverty rate is higher in the South than in other regions, and its geographic distribution is different. While the poverty rate is highest in cities in the three other regions, in the South, it is almost as high in non-metro areas as it is in cities:

Poverty rate by region and type of place of residence, 20142

Most Southern cities are less dense than the old, industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast. In sprawling metros, residential economic and racial segregation influences school quality, housing options, and transportation, and a disconnect often exists between low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and the location of good jobs. While the South’s rate of suburban poverty is lower than the poverty rate inside cities or in rural areas, it is growing, and many of our strategies to improve connections to opportunity often overlook suburban and exurban high-poverty neighborhoods.

Even in the South’s most prosperous cities, the chances of a low-income young person making it to a middle- or high-income career are depressingly low. The Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta metros are ranked among the nation’s best for business, but they have some of the lowest levels of youth economic mobility. Concentrated poverty often exists side-by-side with concentrated affluence, and our systems of educational and economic opportunity often reflect those disparities in their resource allocation and quality.

Because low-income people of color are more likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods than low-income white people, concentrated poverty helps to perpetuate racial inequities. The South has a high rate of poverty across racial and ethnic groups:

Poverty rate by race and ethnicity by region, 20143

Ideally, all young people would have equitable economic outcomes regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status, their neighborhood, or their race and ethnicity. As data show, however, race specifically remains a significant factor in the educational and economic outcomes of individuals across the South, and the city and neighborhood a young person grows up in has real consequences for her quality of life and chances of educational and economic success.

Health Insurance

The South has the highest rates of uninsured people in the U.S. for all racial and ethnic groups. One in four Hispanic or Latino people in the South are uninsured:

Percentage of people not covered by health insurance at any time during the year, 20144

As we said in a recent blog post: “the tide of healthcare coverage is rising, but individual social determinants of health (age, race, socioeconomic status, place, gender, disability status, etc.) often overlap to keep folks from being able to ’float‘ to the same level of access and quality.” Health care access is still determined by those social and economic factors, and people without coverage are often stuck in a cycle of economic insecurity and low mobility.


You might have heard us say this before: the South has the highest level of inequality in the nation, with the Northeast as a close second:

Gini Coefficient, 2014
All 0.480
Northeast 0.487
Midwest 0.461
South 0.488
West 0.474
Source: Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement

Low mobility is a problem on its own, but with a backdrop of rising income inequality and rising wealth inequality, the stakes are higher than ever, and your economic situation at birth is increasingly important.

Why the South Matters

The South has the highest rates of economic insecurity, and our young people also have the lowest chances of upward economic mobility in the nation. Unless we can find a way to shift the opportunity landscape in this region, we have little hope of changing these patterns. In the State of the South report, we proposed that the South must build an infrastructure of opportunity, or a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to postsecondary credentials and economic opportunity regardless of background.

The infrastructure of opportunity is about more than just lifting up young people who are growing up in poverty—it’s about investing in opportunity for all young people so the community has a strong foundation for long-term success. The places that have better outcomes for low- and middle-income young people tend to have better outcomes for high-income young people, too (see Equality of Opportunity Project), indicating that the types of resources, systems, and investments that matter for the economic and educational success of young people are beneficial across the board.

MDC typically defines the South as 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.  The Census Bureau defines the South as those thirteen states plus Delaware, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

The Chance to Thrive

Over the weekend, The News & Observer ran an op-ed by MDC president David Dodson about efforts to improve economic mobility for low-income young people in North Carolina:

It’s starting to happen in Durham. Just ask Zavier Eure.


Eure was in the first graduating class last spring from the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability at Southern High School and spent the summer as an intern at the Durham manufacturing plant of Biogen, a global biotechnology company. There, Eure was a temporary member of Biogen’s global project engineering team tasked with creating a process flow diagram depicting each step in the drug purification process.


“I never took an engineering class, and I never had any interest in the field,” said Eure, an aspiring veterinarian. “But now I’m thinking I can put my engineering experience to good use in a company that works with robotic prosthetics for animals.”


He was one of the first Durham students to participate in a new career internship program launched by Biogen with Made in Durham, a nonprofit created and incubated at MDC, and its partners on the Business Engagement Team of the Durham YouthWork Summer Internship Program. These partners include Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College and Youth Employed and Succeeding.


Made in Durham is an example of what it means to start building an infrastructure of opportunity. It’s a public-private partnership that strives to ensure all Durham youth and young adults complete a post-secondary credential and begin a rewarding career by the age of 25. This summer, Made in Durham matched 72 student interns with 21 local employers in the high-growth fields of health and life sciences, education, banking and construction. Overall, Made in Durham and the YouthWork Business Engagement Team recruited, trained, placed and evaluated 481 youth interns this summer. And they’re just getting started.


Economic mobility – the idea that your success is not dependent on your situation at birth – is core to our vision of America. While it’s always been a myth (particularly for women and people of color), we know ways to make mobility more realistic. By investing in the infrastructure of opportunity, we can get closer to making sure that young people like Zavier Eure have the chance to thrive.

Read the full op-ed here.

Pluck and Luck Are Not a Mobility Strategy

There’s a standard American ideal: if you work hard and jump at opportunities when they come your way, you can be successful no matter where you come from. Horatio Alger’s rags to riches and respectability stories from the late 19th century tell the tale, with poor boys growing up on the streets who find success through a combination of pluck and luck. The modern version of this American myth tends to go something like this: work hard, get an education, and don’t expect anyone to make it easy. This ideal stands in stark contrast to the data, as Richard Reeves explained in an essay last year, Saving Horatio Alger. The chances of a young person born into a low-income family rising to the middle or top of the income distribution are extremely low in the US, and especially in the South. Even in some of the region’s most economically dynamic metros, low-wealth young people are not benefiting from job opportunities and prosperity.

Though the chances of climbing the income ladder go up significantly with a college degree:

There are significant variations in college attendance and completion by family income level. There’s a linear relationship between income and who goes to college; with each percentile increase in the family income distribution, the rate of college attendance increases the same amount.

College success is closely tied to the economic wellbeing of a young person’s family. Let’s imagine that a young person from a low-wealth family ends up in a well-resourced school system, despite the odds, and gets the preparation she needs to succeed academically in college. Her family can’t help her pay for college, but she applies, gets in, and is willing to work a job to pay her own way. She’s heard lots of stories about people who put themselves through school, so she figures she’ll be able to do it, even if it’s difficult. And she would…if she’d gone to school in 1985 instead of 2015. Here’s how the work-your-way-through-school math looks, according to NPR Edthen and now:

  • If you worked a minimum wage job in the early 1980s, you would have to work a part-time job year-round for 16 hours a week, or work a summer job for 9 hours a day, to pay for a year of tuition to a public four-year college of university, assuming you were also receiving the maximum Pell Grant.
  • Today, you would have to work 35 hours a week year round, or more than 20 hours a day in a summer job, to pay a year of four-year public tuition once you’ve received the maximum Pell grant.

Okay, so getting a job won’t help her much. She has three options: get a scholarship, work part-time and take longer to finish, or take out loans. Once again, the odds are against her. Scholarships are increasingly going to affluent students. Completion is much lower for part-time students (which is why many four-year public and community colleges push students to attend full-time), and it’s difficult to balance work and school schedules over time. She can take out loans, but student loan debt is ballooning and many young people struggle to pay it back. If she’s a part-time student or taking out loans, she has to delay starting a family and investing in her family’s future by doing things like owning a home and building wealth.

The costs of college are increasing dramatically, and public investment is declining. In Southern states, four-year tuition has spiked since 2008:

Tuition change

Source: CBPP

Some low-wealth students find a way to make it work, reinforcing that myth of luck and pluck. But according to the data, far too many can’t. And getting more people college degrees won’t fix inequality: the racial wealth gap, for example, persists at all levels of education and income. That chart that showed the positive effect of a college degree on mobility also showed that even a college degree is not enough to overcome the influence of family income on a child’s future income. Still, as long as college degrees are so important for individual economic success, disparities in access will serve to reinforce inequality, as the Report of the Truman Commission on Higher Education stated in 1947:

We have proclaimed our faith in education as a means of equalizing the conditions of men. But there is grave danger that our present policy will make it an instrument for creating the very inequalities it was designed to prevent. If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at all at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.

Economic mobility—the idea that your success is not dependent on your situation at birth—is core to our vision of America. While it’s always been a myth (particularly for women and people of color), we do know of ways to make mobility more realistic. And while the systems have been built for the success of only a few, we should rebuild them to work for everyone. We need a strong infrastructure of opportunity that ties together the systems and supports that boost young people toward educational and economic success regardless of where they are starting from. As leaders in Durham, Greenville, and across the South are discovering, that infrastructure does more than benefit low-wealth young people: it’s good for our communities and our economy.