A Way Forward: Building a Globally Competitive South

A Way Forward: Building a Globally Competitive South

A Way Forward: Building a Globally Competitive South

A Way Forward: Building a Globally Competitive South

Excerpt

In the landmark 1949 study, Southern Politics in State and Nation, distinguished social scientist V. O. Key Jr. wrote that “the prevailing mood in North Carolina is not hard to sense: it is energetic and ambitious. The citizens are determined and confident; they are on the move.” After taking a few swipes at the rest of the South, Key went on to say that North Carolina “enjoys a reputation for progressive outlook and action in many phases of life, especially industrial development, education, and race relations.”

One can certainly challenge aspects of Key’s characterization of North Carolina—and, indeed, his depiction of the rest of the South—but even today, more than sixty years after the fact, he appears to have been on to something about the Old North State. Widely known in the nineteenth century as the Rip Van Winkle State because of its economic inertia, North Carolina woke up economically in the first half of the twentieth century and as a result had become one of the most dynamic states in the region by the time Key wrote. It also had acquired a reputation as the Souths leading generator of ideas pertaining to regional economic and social development, education, and poverty eradication, a reputation based in part on the work of men and women associated with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A lot has changed about both North Carolina and the South more broadly in the last half century. Both our state and the region as a whole experienced rapid economic growth in the second half of the twentieth century, and living standards for the vast majority of the population in the South improved dramatically. The region’s economic performance was particularly impressive between roughly 1950 and the mid-1980s, when the South converged rapidly on national norms in terms of per capita income and other measures. Moreover, by the mid-1980s, sufficient time had elapsed so that the South’s postwar economic record could be placed in a broader and more balanced historical context, a task that seemed particularly important because signs of economic distress had begun to surface in both the state and the region as a whole. And, once again, much of the best analysis emanated from North Carolina, this time from two Triangle-based research organizations, the Southern Growth Policies Board (SGPB) and MDC. Both of these organizations had close ties to UNC and to Chapel Hill, and their 1986 reports—the SGPB’s Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go and MDC’s Shadows in the Sunbelt—are considered two of the best assessments of the achievements and limitations of the so-called Sunbelt boom.

The 25 years since the issuance of these reports have been marked by profound economic changes from which neither North Carolina nor the South has been spared. Some of these changes in the broader global economy have proven enormously beneficial, while others have led to dislocations and still others to economic devastation and social despair. Given the magnitude of change, 2011 seemed to principals at UNC-Chapel Hill’s newly established Global Research Institute (GRI), a think tank devoted to applied research on pressing policy questions, a good time to take another look at these famous reports, to assess how the recommendations contained therein held up over time, to offer fresh analyses of the economic challenges facing both North Carolina and the South, and to lay out some new ideas about how to forge ahead.

A lot has changed
about both North
Carolina and the South
more broadly in the
last half century.

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