Contributing: deposit vs withdrawal
A more inclusive narrative about who “belongs” and more inclusive systems that allow more people to thrive are the foundation for the investment and engagement necessary to build communities where more people are able to make meaningful contributions to the civic and economic life of the region. Our polarized political process presents challenges to acknowledging trade-offs and making compromises for stronger public systems that enable personal and private investment. There also are structural barriers that hinder the ability of large portions of our population to invest in the future—their own or that of the region. These barriers must be addressed to realize a South where everyone has the opportunity to be a co-creator.
Dueling strains of Southern politics
Once the Voting Rights Act went into effect in the six Southern states and 40 North Carolina counties covered by the law, black Southerners flocked to register to vote—wanting both the power that flows from the ballot and the sense of belonging to the electorate of their communities and the nation. Most black voters and elected officials aligned with the Democratic Party. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, had championed and signed the civil rights and voting rights laws. Once the party of white supremacy in the South, the Democratic Party became a biracial coalition; the next 25 years saw a wave of conservative, white voters propel the Republican Party in the South. In this transitional period in regional politics, there arose a generation of state leaders who came to be known as “New South” governors. Both Democrats and Republicans, the New South governors advocated improving public education and modernizing their states’ economies.
The “dueling strains” of politics continued to shape the political and policy landscape of the region over the succeeding four decades and into 2017-18. The Republican “Southern strategy” initiated by Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign—appealing to white voters by tapping into racial resentment—became so embedded that the South now serves as the essential, regional base of the Republican Party. With the candidacy of Jimmy Carter, a farmer from a Deep South state who became a sensation in 1976, the South grew accustomed to subsequent candidates from the region:
- Ronald Reagan of California and George H.W. Bush of Texas both ran on a strong Southern base
- The Democratic Party rebounded in 1992 with the so-called “Bubba-Bubba ticket” of Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Al Gore Jr. of Tennessee.
- Subsequently, George W. Bush of Texas won the presidency in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in his favor over Gore in the disputed count in Florida.
Eight years later, Democrat Barack Obama of Illinois swept to victory as the nation’s first black president. In 2008, Obama carried three states of the former Confederacy—Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. In 2016, Republican Donald Trump of New York drew on abiding white voters’ discontent with the first black president and his agenda to implement nationalist policies that emphasized “law and order”; in the South, he carried every state except Virginia.
• 1966-72: The Voter Education Project estimates more than a million and a half blacks registered in this period. In 1965, the South has fewer than 100 black elected officials; by 1972, the region has 873 black officeholders
• 1968: Running as a third-party candidate, George Wallace carries five states—Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas—in the presidential election (five years after he declared “segregation forever” in his inaugural address as Alabama’s governor)
• 1968: Republican Richard Nixon wins the presidency by a margin of less than a percentage point over Democrat Hubert Humphrey after campaigning as a law-and-order candidate and signaling a go-slow approach to school desegregation. Nixon and the Republican party implement the racialized “Southern strategy” (that still influences not only regional but also national politics)
• 1976: Jimmy Carter of Georgia brings into the national government several veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and the new biracial Democratic politics of the South.
• 1967-2001: “New South” governors advocate for public education and modernization of state economies: They included Republican Winthrop Rockefeller (1967–1971) and Democrat Dale Bumpers (1971–1975 ) of Arkansas; Democrats John West (1971–1975) and Richard Riley (1979–1987) of South Carolina; Republican Linwood Holton (1970–1974) of Virginia; Democrats Reubin Askew (1971–1979) and Bob Graham (1979–1987) of Florida; Democrat Jim Hunt (1977-1985 and 1993 –2001) of North Carolina; and Democrat William Winter (1980 –1984) of Mississippi (who subsequently served as chair of MDC’s Board of Directors).
• 2016: Ava DuVernay argues in her documentary 13th that the scene for mass incarceration was set in 1865 with the passing of the 13th amendment, which abolished slavery in the U.S. “except as punishment for crime.”
• 2017: Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and more than 50 mayors from around the world sign the Chicago Climate Charter at the North American Climate Summit, committing to achieving emissions reductions and move forward with climate action. Seven Southern cities are signatories: Austin, TX, Knoxville, TN, Louisville, KY, New Orleans, LA, North Bay Village, FL, Pittsboro, NC, and St. Petersburg, FL
- Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia have emerged as swing-state battlegrounds in presidential elections, and their elections for governor, U.S. Senator, and other statewide offices remain competitive for Democrats and Republicans. With their growth and diversity of population, Georgia and possibly Texas may join the ranks of swing-states in the near term.
- A distinct racial divide in Southern politics exists, with the Republican electorate consisting of 90 percent or more white voters, and the Democratic Party featuring a more racially diverse coalition.
- There also is a geographic divide, with Republicans stronger in rural places and suburbia, and Democrats ascendant in most of the region’s major cities.
- Potential voters in the Millennial generation appear only loosely connected to a political party.
In 2017, Republicans held 10 of the governors’ offices in the region, and Democrats held three—Louisiana, Virginia, and North Carolina. Significantly, Republicans controlled the legislatures in every Southern state. The GOP’s power in the South since the Great Recession has made its long-held agenda—emphasizing tax cuts to stimulate the economy, tight budgets that have limited investment in public schools, colleges and universities, rejection of Medicaid expansion, and retrenchment on environmental regulations—dominant across the region.
The upcoming 2020 U.S. Census will likely have major implications for the South’s influence on national politics. Through a process known as apportionment, 435 seats in the House of Representative will be allocated across 50 states in time for the 2024 presidential and congressional elections. The factors influencing the potential shakeup of congressional apportionment are complicated and include recent natural disasters (e.g. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria); immigration and migration patterns; the lingering effects of the Great Recession and the housing crisis; the role or state legislatures in drawing Congressional districts; and, increasingly, the availability of jobs.
With the region’s substantial population growth since 1970, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have accounted for a net increase of 26 House seats since the 1913 reapportionment. (Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Kentucky accounted for a loss of 21 seats during the same period. South Carolina held constant at seven seats). A recent analysis from Election Data Services predicts that the South and West are estimated to add a net of four congressional seats in the next reapportionment; Florida, North Carolina, and Texas are all expected to gain seats.
While unforeseen circumstances (legal challenges, natural disasters, and unreliable or suppressed counts) may still affect the outcome of the final Census count, and the state-by-state tallying of congressional seats following the 2020 Census, the South will likely add seats to its congressional delegation, and that means new congressional maps. As recent gerrymandering challenges show, redrawing congressional districts can work to strengthen or harm the region’s ability to embody a place where all people are able to make their voices heard. The 2013 Supreme Court Decision, Shelby County v Holder, which struck down important voting rights protections, has reintroduced voter suppression efforts across the region, with laws reducing early voting periods, identification requirements that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income people, and the widespread disenfranchisement of the formerly incarcerated in many states.14 Efforts to restore protections and expand the franchise are critical to sustaining a more inclusive society where all people are able to contribute to decision-making and determine local, state, and federal representation and priorities.
For Democrats and Republicans, as well as Southerners who remain independent, the question is whether the region’s politics can be transformed, as it was in the late 1960s. Neither party has appealed to Southerners with a fresh agenda aligned with the 21st century need to build thriving, participatory communities amid the turbulence of technological advances, to address the continuous creation and destruction of jobs in a globalized economy, and to face the threats arising from environmental pressures. The larger challenge for the South’s leaders and citizens is to create a narrative that invites full participation in creating shared and sustainable wellbeing that will serve us today and in the future.
Vulnerabilities and Disruptors
Belonging and thriving in the South are interconnected; our systems, designed to privilege some experiences and disadvantage others, result in disparate outcomes. Race and gender and place of birth intersect in myriad combinations of barriers or preference, with increased vulnerability for some and a safety net for others. 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. Disparate outcomes related to incarceration, health care access, and environmental vulnerability are three factors that seriously disrupt some Southerners ability to thrive in our region.
The intergenerational, crippling effects of slavery are echoed in the South’s current incarceration practices, which often function to limit employment, education, civic participation, and housing options, as well as physical and mental well-being. Though the South is increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, institutional practices like those found in federal and state criminal justice systems limit the reality of diverse inclusion in the growth and pockets of prosperity present in the South.
Though the South’s population is increasingly nonwhite, disproportionately large numbers of black Southerners are missing from their communities due to the scope and severity of mass incarceration. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the U.S. incarceration rate doubled each decade, and mass incarceration and other forms of correctional control, such as parole and probation, are particularly pronounced in the South. Despite recent efforts to decrease the prison population due to budgetary and legal challenges, the number of people under correctional control or supervision in the South is stunning:
According to 2016 data from the Prison Policy Initiative, 11 out of 13 Southern states incarcerate their residents at a higher rate than that of the U.S. average (693 people per 100,000), with seven of those 11 incarcerating more than 800 people per 100,000. As of 2016, Louisiana incarcerated residents at the highest rate across the South, putting 1,143 people per 100,000 behind bars, despite recent statewide attempts to lower prison populations by decreasing jail and prison time for nonviolent crimes. Widening the lens to consider parole and probation as well as those in jails and prisons, seven of 13 Southern states exceed the U.S. average rate of correction control (2,111 people per 100,000.) Georgia far outpaces this rate, with 5,828 people per 100,000 under some form of correctional control as of 2016.
When examined by race rather than in total, the inequities present in the South’s systems of correctional control are alarming. According to 2016 data from the U.S. Department of Justice, black populations across Southern states—and in the U.S. overall—are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates relative to their white counterparts. For example, in Texas, as many as over 1,800 black people per 100,000 of the total population are incarcerated, as opposed to about 450 white people and 550 Hispanic/Latino individuals. In Louisiana, over 1,700 black people per 100,000 of the total population are incarcerated, compared to about 400 of white people and 50 Hispanic/Latino individuals.
Peter Edelman, in his 2018 book, Not a Crime to be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America, argues that one of the biggest drivers is a two-tiered system of justice—one for those with financial and other resources, and a separate and wholly unequal one for those in poverty. Combined with racial biases (conscious and subconscious) we have created a system that produces extraordinary racial disparities in the incarceration, probation, and parole rates that harken to much darker days of the South’s past.
The building blocks of this unequal system start to reveal themselves as early as elementary school, where the racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions for African-American students occur at rates three to four time higher than the state average for all students.
The building blocks of this unequal system start to reveal themselves as early as elementary school, where the racial disparities in out-of-school suspensions for African-American students occur at rates three to four time higher than the state average for all students.15 In later grades, these disparities become even more striking when evaluated by gender, with African-American boys and girls receiving suspensions at three to six times high rates than their white counterparts. Suspension rates for African-American students is most pronounced in schools where at least 89 percent of students are enrolled in the school lunch program.
Edelman’s research, along with the influential work by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, reveals equally pernicious challenges in the adult criminal justice system that compounds problems for people in poverty who become justice-involved. Edelman argues that use of pre-trial detention, fines and fees, money-bail, and the suspension of driver’s licenses are the foundation of a modern-day debtor’s prison.
Perhaps the most stunning revelation he uncovers is related to the jailing of defendants who are unable to pay associated courts costs and fines—even though federal case law [via a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Bearden v. Georgia, 461 U.S. 660 (1983)] outlaws the practice. Yet, in municipalities across the country, municipalities routinely finance their court system by imposing various fines and fees—often without inquiring (though often legally mandated by state constitutions) whether the accused have the ability to pay. When people in poverty are unable to pay, local police forces are then tasked with arresting and jailing defendants with outstanding debts until their trial. Recent data point to a significant increase in the percent of the local jail population that is being held pre-trial (commonly because of an inability to pay).16
One of the most troublesome tools currently used by our courts includes the suspension of driver’s licenses—often for infractions that are non-driving related.17 While no comprehensive state-by-state data exist, one recent report reveals just four Southern states (North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) account for more than 4.1 million people with suspended or revoked licenses. In communities across the South, the lack of a reliable public transportation infrastructure and large rural landscape still means that most people travel to their daily activities using a car.
The collateral consequences of jailing, incarcerating, and indebting far too many of the South’s poor and black and brown people under our criminal justice system are far reaching—a criminal record often leads to limited education, employment, and housing options, as well as restrictions on civic participation like voting, not to mention negative effects on physical and mental well-being.
These rates of incarceration and correctional control—the sheer magnitude of the numbers and the racial inequities—also matter when we take stock of progress in the South because incarcerated individuals are not counted among the total population in many datasets examining employment and education. As Ta-Nehisi Coates explains, “The illusion of wage and employment progress among African-American males was made possible only through the erasure of the most vulnerable among them from the official statistics,” noting that “among all black males born since the late 1970s, one in four went to prison by their mid-30s; among those who dropped out of high school, seven in 10 did.”18 When such a significant portion of our communities aren’t counted, how can they belong in a way that enables them to thrive or contribute to personal or community prosperity? Such erasure is evidence of how the persistence of racism across our systems and institutions limits the progress of our entire region.
The passage of Medicare and Medicaid as 1965 amendments to Social Security had an especially profound effect in expanding health insurance to elderly and impoverished Southerners. Medicaid provides health insurance to lower-income people, especially women and children, and is means-tested for income, unlike Medicare; that difference in design has made it politically contentious across the South over the past five decades. State-administered and requiring a match for federal funds, the program consumed a steadily increasing share of states’ budget as health care costs rose. Since Congress adopted the Affordable Care Act in 2010, nine of 13 Southern states declined to expand Medicaid under the law. Thus, a disproportionate share of U.S. residents lacking health insurance comes from the South: 48 percent of the uninsured.
• 1967: Donald Gatch, South Carolina country doctor, testifies at a hearing in Columbia, sponsored by the National Citizens Board of Inquiry into Hunger, describing the serious malnutrition and high incidence of intestinal parasites among Negro children that he found in everyday observation: “Dr. Gatch tells of eight Negro children, three in one family, who died from worms and other parasites, before he stopped counting. ‘If eight white children in Beaufort County had died of parasites, something would have been done eons ago,’ Dr. Gatch said.” Joe Bass, You Can’t Eat Magnolias
• 1969: As a U.S. Senator, Ernest F. Hollings, tours his own state of South Carolina to call attention to hunger and advocate for an expansion of the food stamps program. He is told by a state health officer that 300,000 South Carolinians were going hungry, 11 percent of the state’s population at that time.
• 2010: In an effort to lower cost and expand healthcare coverage, the Affordable Care Act is passed, marking the most significant regulatory overhaul of the US healthcare system since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.
• 2016: In nine states, 12 percent to 16 percent of adults have diabetes—all 9 are in the South.
• 2016: Five Southern states—West Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas—have highest rates of adult obesity in the nation, at 35 percent or above.
In places where education, employment, and accessibility are falling behind national averages, health outcomes are trailing along with them. Southern states have some of the highest rates of heart disease, infant mortality, cancer deaths, and other poor health outcomes.19 The daily economic, educational, and social challenges facing those in poverty also can lead to poorer health outcomes, a phenomenon defined by the World Health Organizations as the “social determinants of health.” People in high poverty communities are:
- more susceptible to certain illnesses
- have less access to health care providers
- are frequently forced to delay care or medicine for financial reasons.
- more likely to be far from clinics and quality food vendors
Formal education often provides foundational principles of nutrition, healthy behaviors, and general health literacy and employment is an avenue for insurance benefits; when Southern communities have higher poverty rates, lower educational attainment rates, and low-wage economies, they are more susceptible to poor health outcomes, driven by policies that marginalize low-income communities. The provisions of the Affordable Care Act made strides in addressing issues of healthcare access, but to holistically address health equity, communities must also consider the underlying environmental, social, and economic factors that enable good health.
We sometimes think about climate change affecting endangered species or making snow a little less likely here in the South. While scientists warn of the likelihood of both scenarios, it’s worth considering the economic dangers of climate change, especially as the frequency and intensity of weather events and storms increase. Many Southern communities are vulnerable due to proximity to water and low-lying land. Paired with higher rates of poverty and lower levels of educational attainment that make bouncing back from economic setbacks, like damaged homes or lost jobs, more difficult, and policies that don’t adequately support recovery, environmental events can have long-term economic effects on individuals, families, and communities. In 2017 alone, hurricanes hit Southern communities with devastating effects—in rural communities like Princeville, N.C., and metro communities like Houston. Current global practices, such as relying heavily on fossil fuels, contribute to increasing atmospheric temperature, which may explain in part why we’re seeing an uptick in these intense storms. Scientists predict that, as temperatures and sea levels rise, we should expect to see increasing energy costs, risk of cardiac and pulmonary disease, agricultural failures, and threats to coastal real estate and housing.20
Supporting economic and environmental resiliency is crucial to shared well-being in the region. Resiliency can be built at the local or state level by creating recovery policies that more accurately reflect the realities of flooding and by ensuring that local manufacturers and other industries don’t contribute to the degradation of natural resources. Forward-thinking leaders in education and employment also can help build community resiliency by providing education and employment opportunities that lead to credentials and living-wage employment, so residents can acquire the savings and safety net needed to “weather” life’s storms.
The way forward: investing more than we withdraw
The shift in state-level investment in higher education is perhaps one of the starkest indicators of the shift from making deposits in our future infrastructure of opportunity to making withdrawals from its fundamental institutions. In a five-year period from 2011-2016, almost every state reduced fiscal support for higher education. These institutions are critical pieces of an infrastructure essential to the development of people and economies, providing not only the educated workforce, but new social and professional connections for people and innovative technologies and businesses that spark economic growth in the region.
But it’s not just schools and jobs that make places prosperous; it’s also the foresight to have civic and physical infrastructure in place that makes it possible for communities and economies to respond and adapt when the unpredictable happens. This requires public and philanthropic investment that is forward-looking, pro-active, and not just reactive. Erskine Bowles, recalling his father, called this “adding to the community woodpile”;21 both individuals and institutions have the ability to support this kind of preparation and investment.
Government support isn’t the only source of investment; philanthropy has a role to play, too. One example of an emerging kind of philanthropic support is direct investment by foundations in Community Development Financial Institutions such as credit unions, banks, revolving loan funds and venture capital funds. The North Carolina-based Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, for example, which works in 11 Southern states, has set a goal of spending 5.5 percent of its endowment’s market value in investments that align with its values. It makes program-related investments that support social change and may earn a rate of return that’s below market value, but the principal is repaid and can be recycled for additional grants or investments. One example of its investments is the South Carolina Community Loan Fund, which went from a small, housing loan fund with $250,000 in capital to a statewide lending intermediary with over $24 million in assets.
As we look at the South today, poverty rates have decreased overall, but racial disparities in poverty remain; postsecondary credentials are more essential than ever to achieving upward economic mobility, but postsecondary access and affordability are threatened; our country’s demographics are increasingly diverse, but race-based resentments, mass incarceration, and nationalist policy proposals threaten people’s sense of “belonging,” make it difficult to “thrive,” and limit the ability—in time, taxes, or tithes—to “contribute.” The data tell us that the state of the South in 2018 is a blurred picture of progress: better than it was 50 years ago, but not nearly good enough for the 21st century.
Like the 1960s, we find ourselves on the precipice of economic and demographic change, and we can choose to be active participants in collectively shaping the future of our region. We did this before and we can do it again. To effectively shape our future, though, we not only must examine the uneven arc of the past that led us to this mixed progress and disparity, but also confront the challenges that threaten to define our future differently as systemic practices, narratives, and ideology converge to create inequitable conditions. To hearken back to James Baldwin, we must be willing to face our history if we hope to change our region and see widespread progress.
17 The most common court-imposed reasons for suspension/revocation of a driver’s license in the South include: failure to appear in court (parking tickets and moving violations); failure to pay a motor vehicle fine, surcharge or fee; failure to pay court fines; failure to comply with a child support order
18 Ta-Nahesi Coates “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” in The Atlantic
19 Samantha Artiga and Anthony Damico (2016). Health and health coverage in the South: a data update. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
20 Robison Meyer (2017). “The American south will bear the worst of climate change’s costs.” The Atlantic.
21 Rick Rothacker (2015). “Erskine Bowles on deficits, Hillary Clinton, and the removal of Tom Ross.” News and Observer.