Driving down Georgia Highway 27, from Columbus to the starting point for this year's Georgia Peanut Tour, in Bainbridge, you'll pass through countless rural communities — Lumpkin, Cuthbert, Suttons Corner, Bluffton, Blakely, Colquitt and others that can't be found on any map.
Many of these small towns are prime examples of civic pride in action, with vital town squares and signs of new and expanding businesses. In other rural communities, however, the blight is evident. Boarded-up storefronts, working-age men loitering about in the middle of the day, a proliferation of “cash advance” and pawn shops — all indications that some areas of the rural Southeast have been left behind in terms of economic growth and prosperity.
During the recent farm bill negotiations, some members of Congress balked at the fact that so many funds were being committed to investment and revitalization efforts in our rural communities. But, as a recent report points out, such funds are badly needed.
The report, “State of the South 2002: Shadows in the Sunbelt Revisited” was drafted by a North Carolina think tank that has studied changes in the South since 1967. The report covers Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma. South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and West Virginia.
The report reveals that the 1990s brought a tale of two Souths — one metropolitan and prosperous, the other rural and in serious trouble. “The recession that ushered in the 21st century served to speed up the change and churning in the economy. It hastened the collapse of traditional Southern industries,” states the report.
The 1990s were seen as sort of a “Golden Age” for many of the South's metropolitan areas, with the region outpacing the nation in job and population growth. It narrowed the income gap with the rest of the nation, the historic migration of blacks out of the region reversed and a strong black middle class thrived.
Charlotte became a national banking center while Atlanta — home to Coca-Cola, CNN, UPS and Home Depot — accounted for more than half of Georgia's population.
But while the big cities thrived, many more Southern towns were overwhelmed by globalization and technological changes worldwide, the report says. Sparsely populated and low-income communities were invariably the last to get telecommunications infrastructure. More than 60 percent of the zip codes in the Mississippi River Delta areas of Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas still have no broadband provider.
The gap between cities and rural areas was further defined in the last decade by the rural South's dependency on low-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs and agriculture. In the recent recession, states the report, decades-old plants closed, diminishing the tax base of communities and the job prospects of older workers.
The economic slowdown of 2001-02, along with the devaluation of Asian currencies, has led to further layoffs and closings. Countless farm jobs also have been lost in recent years. Southern states reported a loss of more than 375,000 jobs in 2001, and most were in rural counties.
“In decades past, the impact of recession was temporary — workers would be called back to the plant floor when inventories had been worked off and demand picked up. This time, however, national recovery won't bring jobs back to the rural South,” says the report.
The “State of the South” report certainly isn't very encouraging for our rural areas. But it does suggest that education and entrepreneurship may be solutions to the current woes.