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Forget Politics, the South's Demographic Change is About the Economy

Forget Politics, the South's Demographic Change is About the Economy

In the week since American voters re-elected President Obama, political pundits, and social commentators have remarked on how the nation’s demographic shifts influenced the outcome of the presidential election.

“Vote Data Show Changing Nation,” said a front-page headline in The Wall Street Journal.

“Demographics Shape USA’s Divide,’’ said a USA Today headline.

On their websites, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The News & Observer of Raleigh used identical headlines above an Associated Press story: “Face of U.S. Changing: Elections to Look Different.”

As MDC has documented in its State of the South reports, the changing face of the United States is largely a Southern story. It is a story of black Americans relocating to the South more than to any other region of the country. And, whereas Northeast and Pacific coast states and cities were the focal points of previous waves of immigration, now it’s the turn of Southern states and communities to serve as the places where new immigrants – now mostly Spanish-speaking people from Mexico and Latin America – have come to live and work.

More than a decade ago -- in the 1998 State of the South report, to be precise – we began calling the South’s attention to the economic and educational implications of the shifts in demography. “Elvis Presley had something other than demography in mind when he recorded All Shook Up in 1957,” we wrote then. "…The South heads into the 21st century with the look and feel of prosperity, but also with a sense of having been all shook up.”

Well now, the region is deep into the 21st century. The deep 2007-09 recession and the slow recovery have sapped the South’s sense of optimism and prosperity. And, while the recession tamped down further immigration, the South has already turned the corner into a multi-ethnic society.

The charts at the bottom of this article provide an update of the demographic trends and profiles of the Southern states. The charts exclude mega-states of Texas and Florida, with Hispanic populations far exceeding other states in the region.

Put aside the politics, and consider the overarching demographic challenges facing the South, and the nation as well. The baby-boom generation, largely a white phenomenon, is heading toward retirement. The rising generation of Southerners consists of a larger share of blacks and Latinos, who will need more postsecondary education and training to take over the jobs soon to be vacated by retirees and soon to be created in the post-recovery economy Yet as this chart from the 2010 State of the South makes clear, the South has significant gaps in educational attainment along the lines of race and ethnicity.  

As we noted in the 2010 State of the South report, “If the South is to increase overall educational attainment to lift its economy, it must place a particular focus on completion of degrees and job certification by blacks and Hispanics, who will represent a larger segment of the workforce in the near future.” 

(For a provocative discussion of the intergenerational dynamics, see this article in National Journal:

President Obama won the electoral votes in two Southern states – Virginia and Florida – where demographic change had shifted the political landscape. In North Carolina, which also has seen substantial population growth and change, Republican Mitt Romney won a fairly narrow victory, capturing a state that Obama had won, even more narrowly, four years ago.

At the same time, last week’s elections – combined with the off-year elections since 2008 – have given Republicans control of most state governments in the South. Only West Virginia now has a Democratic majority in its legislature, as Arkansas and North Carolina just joined the ranks of Southern states with GOP majorities.

It’s worth repeating what we said in 1998: “A burgeoning multiethnic society will mean fresh energy and ideas, but it will also lead to new social tensions…The global economy brings capital and goods to the South, but it also challenges the region’s workers, schools and policymakers to adapt.”


Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Census, 1960-2010