VOICES: Same ol' poor ol' South on the losing side
By Joe Atkins, Labor South
Labor, civil rights, immigration and other social justice activists will gather in Charleston, S.C., December 7-9 to convene the 9th bi-annual Southern Human Rights Organizers’ Conference and take what organizer Dante Strobino calls another step forward in 'building a genuine Southern Workers Assembly and alliance."
The group was active at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, and the implications of the re-election of President Barack Obama is likely to be a major topic of discussion. They know they have their work cut for them in a region that largely was on the losing side in the presidential election, voting against Barack Obama's bid for a second term in office. Only Virginia and Florida went against the Southern grain.
In some key ways, the SHROC is building on the earlier work of groups such as Southern Conference for Human Welfare in the late 1930s and 1940s, an organization that championed working-class Southerners at the time when Franklin D. Roosevelt had declared the South as "the nation’s number one economic problem."
This is the region with the nation's largest black population, a growing Latino population, one that used to be called the "Solid (Democratic) South" and that was a key component of Roosevelt's election-winning coalition. You might think politics today would finally be more competitive down here. Why isn't it?
Here are a few reasons as seen by this Southern born-and-bred observer:
The South is still pretty much a top-down place whose political, business, media and religious elite run things and who refuse to budge from a rock-ribbed allegiance to minimal government, a give-away-the-store attitude toward business, an image of Jesus that reflects very little of what's taught in the Sermon on the Mount. Sadly, this is still a race-haunted South. Southerners, by the way, led in the number of ugly, racist responses to Obama's victory on Twitter.
What has been long clear in the Republican agenda is that the GOP would like to turn the nation into one large South -- de-regulated and anti-union with the barest of services provided by government.
If Republicans ever succeed in that goal, maybe the South will cease being the poorest region because every region will be poor.
And the South is poor. Let's look at some statistics offered recently by Gene Nichol, law professor and director of the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina, in the Texas-based Progressive Populist.
Of the 12 poorest states in the nation, 10 are Southern. Mississippi's shameful 23 percent poverty rate is at the very bottom. Louisiana, Arkansas, and Georgia aren't far behind. The nation's poverty rate is 15 percent. The South has more poor children than any other region. More than one-quarter of the children in nine Southern states are poor. Go South if you want to find people without health insurance. That's where you'll find more of them than in any other region.
Was there another region where Obamacare was more cursed than in the South? Mississippi Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has said he opposes the expansion of Medicaid envisioned by Obamacare even though it would benefit more than 300,000 of the many needy in this poorest of all states and even add an estimated 9,000 new jobs. His is a typical attitude among Republican leaders in the South.
It's a crying shame. After all the talk about the "New South" and the "Sunbelt South" and "Detroit South," it's still, in many ways, the same ol', poor ol' South."
(Map of poverty in the United States is from the Housing Assistance Council. For a larger version, click here.)
Joe Atkins is a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and author of "Covering for the Bosses: Labor and the Southern Press." A veteran journalist, Atkins previously worked as the congressional correspondent with Gannett New Service's Washington bureau and with newspapers in North Carolina and Mississippi.