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Recessions bust South’s boom

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Two recessions have reversed two decades of economic progress in the South, unmasking deep flaws behind the facade of the region’s “Gilded Age,” a new report says.

After an economic surge in the 1980s and 90s that cut its poverty rate faster than the rest of the U.S., the South in the 2000s saw its median household income fall more than in any other region while its poverty rates grew to their levels of a decade ago, says the first chapter — Beyond the ‘Gilded Age’ — of The State of the South 2010.

In ‘80s and ‘90s, population and jobs grew faster in the South than the rest of the U.S., with the gap in poverty rates across the region narrowing in 1998 to within 1.4 percent of the nation overall, and the poverty rate falling to a lower level in every southern state in 2000 than in 1980, says the report by MDC Inc., a think-tank in Chapel Hill, N.C.

But recession dealt a heavy blow to that “fleeting middle-class prosperity,” wiping out millions of low-skill, low-wage jobs, “probably for good,” exposing structural weaknesses in the region, and setting back progress for millions of Southerners, MDC says.

“The South enjoyed a high tide of economic well-being that, when it receded, revealed many of our persistent problems hadn’t gone away,” David Dodson, president of MDC, says in a statement.

“Barriers to educational opportunity and economic stability are still with us,” he says. “But now, in a global economy and with a changing population, removing those barriers and fostering equity – a level playing field of opportunity – is an economic imperative.”

The South lost 1.8 million jobs from September 2008 to November 2009, for example, or nearly 30 percent of all jobs lost throughout the U.S.

To get itself back on track, the South will need new strategies that create jobs paying a middle-class wage of better, MDC says.

“The impending recovery will not be driven by reassembling the pieces of a shattered economy,” the report says. “Rather, the recovery should be driven by ideas – ideas that emerge from civic discussions and purposeful, organized thinking that looks beyond current difficulties and addresses the inequities and disparities that will hold people back even when the current low economic tide rises again.”

Future chapters of the report will look at strategies to revive the region’s economic track in the areas of learning, earning, living, connecting and leading.

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