State of the South 2018: Shaping a South where all people thrive

As MDC marks our 50th year as a catalyst for a South where all people thrive, the moment is ripe to look backward and forward, to examine how we have progressed and what we must do to be a region that is inclusive, equitable, and capable of sustaining its forward momentum. Fifty years ago, the South summoned the courage to transform its self-limiting approaches to economic and human development and move toward a different future. Today, we enjoy the legacy of those of visionary and courageous actions. The seeds planted decades ago and nurtured by deliberate public and private investment have allowed the South to shed some, though by no means not all, of its self-limiting “also-ran” status.

  • Fifty years after MDC’s founding, Southern outcomes in education, employment, and income are better—but they aren’t good enough. As a whole, Southern schools, colleges, and universities perform better than ever, though in constant need of improvement to meet the demands of both democracy and a changing economy. However, most states still lag the national average in K–12 achievement, and blacks and Latinos lag white students in both K-12 achhievement and postsecondary degree attainment—the latter a threshold that is increasingly necessary to attain family-sustaining wages.
  • The South has hubs of excellence and innovation in medicine, health, and science, providing the benefits of modern medicine and hospitals, networks of well-trained providers, and improved public health programs. And yet, millions of Southerners still lack adequate health insurance. The failure to expand Medicaid in states across the South not only has made it difficult for patients to receive and afford care, but for hospitals to keep their doors open. The number of rural hospital closings is rising, often in areas with the poorest health, signaling the creation of health care deserts.1
  • Charleston, Biloxi, and New Orleans have largely recovered from devastating storms of a decade or more ago, even as several Texas and Florida cities were hit hard by hurricanes in 2017. Yet the South’s vast coast, enjoyed by residents and vacationers, is increasingly vulnerable to intense storms and sea-level rise, threatening both trade and tourism.

Though educational attainment beyond high school has increased, and median income has grown, there are still staggering disparities across racial lines, and children born into low-income households have little chance of doing better than their parents. In MDC’s early years, Jim Crow laws and school segregation were finally being dismantled because of federal action, spurred by local and national activism. This progress was not the result of widespread good will, but rather occurred despite a large constituency in the South that wanted to preserve exclusion. Some factors that made progress possible were:

  • Beneficial social and economic expansion at the national level that lifted the South as well
  • Federal laws and regulations that forced changes in voting rights and school segregation
  • Federal investments in infrastructure and economic development
  • Grassroots activism, unconventional leaders, and relentless legal advocacy to begin dismantling racial and gender exclusion
But looking toward the future, the vision of an inclusive and thriving South is still elusive. Our systems of governance, education, and employment result in disparate outcomes. Race, 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 educational and economic opportunity often reflect those disparities in their resource allocation and quality.

We have substituted a culture of investment for a culture of withdrawal. Today, we see the re-segregation of schools and the persistence of racial disparities in housing and employment, some enabled by state and federal legislation, some perpetuated by structural inequities that laws didn’t remove or relieve. The social and economic consequences of these inequities affect generations of families, particularly communities of color, and families across the region are less financially secure. The anemic economic recovery from the Great Recession is not conferring benefits to those in middle- and lower-income brackets, leaving low- and middle-income families more vulnerable to rising housing and education costs and increasing uncertainty in everything from retirement benefits to weather patterns.

We have substituted a culture of investment for a culture of withdrawal.

Few Southern cities are achieving growth, prosperity, and inclusive economic outcomes that improve conditions across the socioeconomic spectrum; regional growth and prosperity, matched with limited inclusion of historically disadvantaged populations, will likely exacerbate social fissures produced by shifting demographics and increased income inequality. Can the levers of progress that helped us move forward before be elevated and reinvigorated to do so again?

Belong ● Thrive ● Contribute

James Baldwin wrote in 1962, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”2 As a region, we continue to grapple with the push and pull of history, the getting better but not improving enough. Progress toward a more inclusive society will require facing our history and seeing our current situation clearly. This report looks backward and forward through three lenses:

  • Belonging: Creating a more inclusive society in the South first requires answering the question “who belongs?” Fifty years ago, we wrestled with that question and answered—first reluctantly and then more emphatically—“black and white together and equally.” We must ask this question again in a multi-racial South where the fault lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and identity inequities separate and divide us. The South needs a more accepting and affirming notion of belonging—one that allows individuals to be full and equal members of the larger whole and to participate in community institutions and activities without constraint.
  • Thriving: Creating a more economically dynamic South is impossible without addressing the structural inequities that fail to cultivate and deploy the full range of talents that Southerners possess. To create conditions for thriving Southern communities, we must support individual mobility that rests on a combination of deliberately supportive institutional practices, community supports, personal drive, and the eradication of structural barriers. Central to thriving are two pillars: education that equips all our people for value-adding, family-supporting work, and the engagement of “demand-side” investors and employers at the other end of the talent development pipeline.
  • Contributing: Fifty years ago, Southerners began to build the foundations of future prosperity even as they tried to correct the accumulated deficits of the past. By dismantling barriers to the full social, political, and economic participation of once-marginalized minorities, the region enabled more of its people to join in shaping a collective future. We now must invest again in education and employment, physical infrastructure, and health in ways that secure a more prosperous future. An infrastructure of opportunity that serves all Southerners will require bold public and private investment.

Looking backward through the lenses of belonging, thriving, and contributing can illuminate the choices we once made, the results we have achieved, and the hurdles that will test our leadership, our ingenuity, and our resolve—challenges that must be overcome to move the South forward equitably.

For most Southerners there is a pride in how far we have come even if we do not fully recall or understand what was required to get here. Many of the people in the South today were not alive in 1968 to see the turmoil and transitions of the ensuing decades; and in-migration to the region has brought people who, though alive during that time, do not share the history of place and people. There is much to learn, then, from examining that history and putting today’s experiences in the context of where we have come from.

MDC holds a vision of the South as a region that is inclusive, equitable, resilient and committed to propelling all its people forward.

MDC holds a vision of the South as a region that is inclusive, equitable, resilient and committed to propelling all its people forward. To realize that vision requires acknowledging our history and facing our unfinished business. If we want to see different outcomes, we must embrace inclusive narratives about what it means to be Southern; we must build institutions and systems that enable resilience and inclusive well-being. Laying the foundations of our future will require that we:

  • acknowledge the shifting demographics of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the region
  • imagine and enact civic engagement and economic development that address local needs and encourage cooperation of urban and rural areas
  • create a strong, dual customer talent development system that enables both workers and employers to be competitive in the marketplace
  • actively invest for the future, building an infrastructure of opportunity that secures prosperity for generations to come
  • enlist and engage Southerners to bridge the fault lines of fear and suspicion to become co-creators of an equitable future

Acknowledging our history and co-creating a better present for a better future will require cultivating participation in civic life and decision-making from people who are now on the sidelines. Broader participation will require overcoming the myriad ways we divide ourselves by sharing power and position in ways formal and informal. With more prosperity and less vulnerability, we will be better able to face whatever lies before us, including the uncertainty of economic and political change. This report looks at our region’s history and our current situation and proposes a way forward. Historically, MDC has written State of the South reports to inform the “leaders” of the South. This report is directed to the people of the South to inspire reflection and action to build the region we all deserve.


1 National Rural Health Association

2 “As Much Truth as One Can Bear” in The New York Times Book Review (14 January 1962); republished in The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (2011), edited by Randall Kenan