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State of the South 2014: The Story of State of the South

State of the South 2014: The Story of State of the South

Ferrel Guillory, then a writer-in-residence at MDC, was driving on I-40 through the high-tech, corporate-filled Research Triangle Park between Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, N.C., one day in 1995, listening to a radio interview with then-U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich. As Gingrich talked about the failure of activist state and federal governments, Guillory looked around and saw a disconnect.

“I’m listening to this as I drive through RTP and thinking to myself that it doesn’t look like failure here, that this had come about through both public and private action and was becoming the crown jewel of this region,” recalls Guillory, formerly a Washington correspondent and political columnist for The News & Observer and currently a senior fellow at MDC. “It signified something going on that wasn’t simply failure.”

From that drive emerged the idea for MDC’s State of the South series, reports designed “not to sugarcoat or paint over the issues of the South,” Guillory says, “but to tell a story about what the South was becoming, how it was growing, and identifying some of the underlying issues. It was to be a good documenter of both how we’ve moved forward and how we’ve not, and come to grips with it.”

That led to the first edition of State of the South in 1996 and has remained MDC’s consistent mission through this ninth edition, which comes out on Tuesday. Entitled “Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation, ” it takes a deep look at prospects and challenges for the region’s 15- to -24-year-olds, featuring analysis of data that includes region-wide reductions in K-12 and higher education spending, state-by-state looks at where young people are dropping out of the education-to-career continuum, and how some of the South’s most thriving cities may be rated at the high end of Forbes’ “Best for Business” list but also are near the top of less desirable lists that indicate serious inequities threatening their communities’ wellbeing.

The report says Southern communities need to create an "infrastructure of opportunity" for youth and young adults that is as seamless as the electric grid or the water system—and just as essential. That infrastructure consists of a clear and deliberate set of pathways and supports that connect youth and young adults to educational credentials and economic opportunity. It requires the involvement of a broad cross-section of the community—business, government, the education system, social services, nonprofits, and philanthropy. And it's a framework communities can use regardless of political and policy deadlocks at the state and federal level, and can reflect the culture and circumstances of each locale.

As earlier blogposts reported, MDC staff visited nine Southern locales—Brownsville, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Port St. Joe, Fla.; Danville, Va.; Greenville, S.C.; Northern Neck, Va.; Houston, Texas; Durham, N.C.; and  regions of Arkansas—to write on-the-ground profiles of the status of their opportunity infrastructures. The profiles point out the innovative ideas they are trying and what they may be missing, including the importance of a laser-focused perspective on youth economic mobility as part of their education and economic development strategies. 

The Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” recently ran a post called, “Why the South is the worst place to live in the U.S.—in 10 charts,” using nine measures of well-being in 50 states as measured by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That reminds Guillory of a conversation he had with the late George Autry, MDC’s founding president, who guided the early editions of State of the South.

“Those numbers are accurate, but as George used to say, ‘If we’re so dumb, why are we getting so rich?’ I would say that if we’re such a bad place to live, why is everybody moving here?” Guillory says.

He points to the chart in the upcoming State of the South report that compares Southern cities’ high Best for Business rankings with the difficulties faced by so many of the young people who live in them. “You’ve still got too many people who are not upwardly mobile in those cities,” he says. “That’s the real story.”