The American South spent much of the past century trying to overcome its position as the country’s poorest and least-developed region, with considerable success: By the 2009 recession it had nearly caught up economically with its northern and western neighbors.
That trend has now reversed, as The Wall Street Journal details in an in-depth feature about the region, which for its purposes includes Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Virginia, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Since 2009, the South’s convergence has turned to divergence. Behind the reversal: The policies that drove the region’s catch-up—relatively low taxes and low wages that attracted factories and blue-collar jobs—have proven inadequate in an expanding economy where the forces of globalization favor cities with concentrations of capital and educated workers.
Of course, the South is not alone in its economic troubles: Automation and globalization have wiped out millions of good-paying factory jobs around the country, especially in the Rust Belt. But these trends have fallen especially hard on the South, which is more rural than the rest of the country and has fewer big cities.
Rural Adams County in the southwest corner of Mississippi exemplifies the typical story of the South’s rise and fall. It once attracted thousands of higher-paid factory jobs, but the major factories began closing in the 2000s. The income gains the county notched against the rest of the country from the 1950s to the 2000s have completely reversed.
The Adam’s County population peaked in 1982 at 39,172, and has declined about 20% since. Factory jobs, 18.5% of the county’s total in 1992, were just 5% in 2017. Per capita income is now 56.8% of the national average.
Many economists say the most effective way for the South to regain its momentum would be to invest more in education, which would over time create a more skilled workforce to attract employers. But Mississippi State University economist Alan Barefield notes that is difficult to reconcile with southern states’ historic desire to keep spending and taxes low.