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As poverty increases, South needs to invest in education, jobs

We have a choice. • The South can be a prosperous region, thriving with a new generation of industry replacing textile mills and other low-wage, low-skill employers while providing jobs to a well-educated work force. • Or the South can be a region in decline, short-changing its would-be job creators and skilled workers and missing the opportunity to create a new economy. • That's the inescapable message in the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent poverty data, which show that while people are hurting throughout the country, half of the Americans who sank into poverty from 2009 to 2010 were in the South. Of the 2.6 million additional people in poverty, fully 1.5 million are Southerners. The recession has been especially harsh on cities and among African-Americans and Latinos, who make up nearly a majority of our people under 15 years old:

• More than 1 million young people have fallen into poverty in the South since 2007. About one in four children under 18 now live below the poverty line, including 924,000 in Florida.

• Poverty in the South is growing fastest among African-Americans and Hispanics. In Florida, poverty has increased by 6 percentage points among both African-Americans and Hispanics since the recession began.

• For the first time, the census found that fewer than half of Southerners under the age of 15 are non-Hispanic whites.

• In the South, fewer than 35 percent of people at the age of entering the work force have a degree or certificate beyond high school, compared with 39 percent nationwide. In Florida, 35.8 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 34 have a postsecondary degree.

Between 1980 and 2000, the South went through a period of robust growth, outpacing the nation in population and job gains as it wiped away the most obvious legacies of racial segregation. But two recessions erased many of those economic gains, taking away thousands of employers and tens of thousands of low-skill jobs while magnifying disparities in wealth and education.

In January, MDC's State of the South report called this a year of reckoning. "No one can enter the year 2011 without a sobering sense of progress and equity at risk," the report said. The latest figures show the danger was worse than imagined. Not only has poverty increased, but the nation's median income has gone down as well, signifying that the stress is not just at the bottom, but in the middle class. The median household in Florida makes $5,858 less than when the recession began.

Yet we've turned away from finding solutions. Just at a time when we need more jobs and to educate the rising generation, we find ourselves laying off workers in schools and other public institutions. Budget cuts add to unemployment and make it difficult to respond to the region's long-term employment needs.

Today's civic and business leaders must create and attract new industries and the higher-skilled, better-paying jobs they bring. We cannot do that if our future workers are the people least successful in school and suffering the most in a tough economy.

The region has ideas at its fingertips. We know that well-educated people do better, even in recessions. This year in Florida, people with an associate's degree or some college earned $6,156 more than those who only graduated from high school. And the more educational achievement a person has beyond high school, the more likely they are to be employed, stay out of poverty and join the middle class.

Beyond creating a work force that attracts good jobs, education molds the leaders and entrepreneurs who will create them.

In the short-term, mapping a better future will require state and federal investment to stem job losses and create new jobs. Long term, we must identify and remove the barriers that are keeping too many in the region from succeeding in and beyond high school. And we must find ways the South can become more competitive in a global marketplace — from modernizing our tax structure to embracing the promise of new technologies.

In the face of growing poverty and a weakening middle class, the South has to make the right investments to stabilize families and strengthen education. Doing nothing is to make a choice — for economic decline and a less equitable region.

Max Rose is the Autry Fellow at MDC, a nonprofit based in Durham, N.C., that has published State of the South reports since 1997 and develops initiatives to improve educational and economic opportunity. For more about the State of the South, go to mdcinc.org/knowledge/sos-2010.aspx.

As poverty increases, South needs to invest in education, jobs 09/24/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 23, 2011 5:25pm]

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