The South: The Best (and Worst) Place for the American Dream
The southern states are home to a great divide on economic opportunity.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this region is ground zero in the inequality fight.
OZY is proud to partner with Opportunity Nation to reveal the results of their 2017 Opportunity Index, which measures the economic, educational and civic factors that foster opportunity and economic mobility.
If you want a shot at the American dream, your best bet is to be born in Williamson County, Tennessee, outside the boomtown of Nashville. Among the 18 counties that give you the longest odds, five are in Louisiana. That’s the South for you. The 2017 Opportunity Index, a comprehensive look at the factors that drive opportunity across the United States, reveals how the South is home to some of the most dynamic and fastest -growing areas in the country — but also some of the least hopeful. It’s a challenge that leaders across the region are grappling with, as they try to make sure all have the chance to climb America’s economic ladder.
The Opportunity Index numbers show what a challenge that will be. “ZIP codes still matter, unfortunately,” says Monique Rizer, executive director of Opportunity Nation, the bipartisan nonprofit advocacy group that puts out the index as part of its mission to reduce the opportunity gap and expand economic mobility nationwide. The index is broken down into four parts: economy, education, community and, new this year, health. In weighing the opportunity scores across states and counties, the Opportunity Index — shared exclusively with OZY ahead of its public release — takes into account a wide variety of metrics, from rates of broadband internet access to preschool enrollment to violent crime.
It’s dishonest to ignore the legacy of slavery.
Jason O’Rouke, Georgia Chamber of Commerce
The data show some of the biggest strides being made in the former Confederacy. Georgia was the most improved state overall. Jefferson County, Mississippi, made the biggest gains since last year in unemployment, while Hudspeth County, Texas, had the biggest income spike and Bienville Parish, Louisiana, had the most-improved high school graduation rate. But the backsliding also occurred down South: More than two-thirds of the 54 counties that saw their opportunity grades drop by more than 5 percent were in the South. Most were sparsely populated. In many ways, the trends across the South are a juiced-up version of what is happening across America. Major metro areas are raking in economic gains — bringing better funding for their schools and hospitals — while rural areas languish.
Abby Parcell, program manager at the Durham, North Carolina-based nonprofit MDC, helps lead the Network for Southern Economic Mobility, an initiative across eight cities trying to tackle those disparities. “We can’t have a society where only exceptions succeed,” Parcell says. “This is not about helping individuals beat the odds that are against them, but knowing this is an issue in the region, how do we change those odds so more people can be economically secure and successful?”
So what makes the South different? “It’s dishonest to ignore the legacy of slavery,” says Jason O’Rouke, vice president of public policy and federal affairs at the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The Georgia chamber has been challenging its lily-white county affiliates to include more Black-owned businesses to better reflect their communities. Giving minorities a seat at the table is essential to figuring out how to attack the signature woes of education and health care, O’Rouke says.
Parcell also names structural racism as a major driver of inequality in the South, but adds a second factor: low unionization rates, given that workers can negotiate better pay and benefits through collective bargaining. But O’Rouke counters that the region’s “right to work” laws — which help reduce union membership and funding by not allowing unions to collect mandatory fees from the workers they represent — are a big part of the South’s success story, particularly in auto manufacturing. Car companies have cited the union climate as the reason they are building plants in places like Alabama instead of Michigan.
It’s early days for Parcell’s Network for Southern Economic Mobility, which launched just more than a year ago in Jacksonville, Florida; Athens, Georgia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Greenville, South Carolina. (Four more cities joined this fall.) Local political, business, philanthropic and community leaders are starting by changing their rhetoric to talk more about inequality and connecting it with existing initiatives on affordable housing and transportation, for example.
The need to improve education remains a constant refrain from leaders seeking to right the region’s economic imbalance. Sometimes it takes a healthy prod from a major corporation or the federal government. For Augusta, Georgia, it was a comment from a general. In 2013, the U.S. Army decided to move its Cyber Command headquarters to Augusta — a huge boon to the area. But Karen Ribble, assistant director for operations at the Augusta University Cyber Institute, recalls the facility’s then-commander, Lt. Gen. Edward C. Cardon, expressing concern about whether local educational institutions could deliver the trained workforce he needed.
So the county school systems came up with a cyber curriculum from scratch, and Augusta University ramped up its offerings. Ribble says three students have jobs lined up in a Department of Defense agency, though given the hush-hush assignments, she can’t get more specific. This fall Ribble says the Cyber Institute brought in nearly 100 students — mostly African-American — from grades six through 12 to learn computer programming basics via the nonprofit Girls Who Code. Why all the interest? The kids, and their parents, had simply realized where the jobs were going to be.