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My State of the South

My State of the South

By now you have probably seen The New York Times income mobility map. It’s a powerful visual that provides a stark image of the economic immobility crisis facing this country, especially those living in the South. It’s hard to see it and not think about the working families trying to create better lives for their children. It has also prompted me to reflect on my own life.

You see, this map is talking about me.

It encompasses data on the 1980-82 birth cohorts (of which I am a proud member) and the chances of a child born in the bottom fifth rising to the top fifth. I was raised in the bottom quintile, in a small, rural South Carolina town. Now, many years later, I am out of the bottom quintile. As the map shows, the probability of moving up is limited if you were born in the South. As I look at that map, I notice my own speckle of red. And I ponder how did I beat the odds? How did I move out of the bottom quintile? How was I lucky enough to not fall through the cracks?

I have come up with two reasons for my own personal experience:

A strong support base. I am a first-generation college graduate. My mom did not know much about college, but she knew I was going. Every day after school, my mom and grandmother made me go to my room and not come out until I finished my homework. I hated it at the time, but now I see the value in hard work before play.

I also benefited from growing up in a small, rural area. I had teachers who knew my mom and my aunts and uncles (some of my teachers actually taught them, too). My mom would know about my day before I got off the school bus in the afternoon. I had a band teacher whose mission was to show us the world outside of our small town. He took us to colleges all across the South, helping us believe that we could be students there one day.  Sure, we did not have many of the resources our urban counterparts had, but I value the education I received there. It shaped my views on the world.

Good social policy. As a high-school and college student, I participated in several programs targeting first-generation, low-income students. I was involved in the Federal TRIO Educational Talent Search program while in high school. I learned about FAFSA, college applications, and scholarships. In college, I participated in another TRIO program—the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program. This program encouraged first-generation college students to continue their education beyond undergraduate school and pursue doctoral degrees. As a McNair Scholar, I wrote my first doctoral personal statement. Years later, when I finally did apply for admission to a PhD program, I referenced that personal statement and used it as my framework.

My alma mater, the University of South Carolina, made a commitment to diversity. I graduated in the top-five percent of my high school class, but I was still anxious about completing my college applications, hoping that someone would accept me. I am so happy they took a chance on me, a poor black kid (or academically speaking, a first-generation, low-income, minority student) from rural South Carolina. And I am sure they were even happier, 3½ years later when they could include me in their graduation rate.

As we continue to do research on the mobility issue here at MDC, I will look back fondly over my educational experience and be more than grateful for all the people, programs, and policies that helped me move from that bottom quintile.

Now, let’s get to work helping other youth have the opportunity to move up, too.