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State of the South 2018: Recovering Our Courage

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MDC marks its 50-year anniversary with a sobering look at a region that made great strides during the 1960s and ’70s— improving education, income, and health for its residents by removing many barriers to opportunity for African American and low-income residents—but is falling back.

The result: some of the lowest upward economic mobility rates in the nation as young people are not adequately prepared for jobs being filled by newcomers.

These are among the key findings reported in MDC’s report, State of the South: Recovering our Courage.


Read the Executive Summary

Read the full report

Learn more at

MDC is grateful for support of the State of the South 2018 from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation, Wells Fargo, The Duke Endowment, Knight Foundation, and The N.C. Fund Legacies Fund at the Triangle Community Foundation.


In every state in the South, the percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees or higher who were born outside the state exceed the percentage born in-state, reflecting their dependence on imported talent over building their own talent-development systems.

In Virginia, the Southern state with the highest percentage of residents with a B.A. or advanced degree, for example, nearly 50 percent of in-migrants hold advanced degrees compared to less than 25 percent of people born there.

Today, we see the re-segregation of schools and the persistence of racial disparities in housing and employment, some enabled by state and federal legislation, some perpetuated by structural inequities that laws didn’t remove or relieve.

Few Southern cities are achieving growth, prosperity, and inclusive economic outcomes that improve conditions across the socioeconomic spectrum; regional growth and prosperity, matched with limited inclusion of historically disadvantaged populations, will likely exacerbate social fissures produced by shifting demographics and increased income inequality.

The report calls out significant data on education, income, employment, demographics, population growth, health, incarceration, and in-migration, much of its compared to data from the 1960s.

It also examines the South through three lenses critical to social and economic progress:

  • Belonging—allowing all people to be full and equal citizens who can participate in community institutions without constraint.
  • Thriving—creating a more economically dynamic region by removing structural barriers and building support systems that enable personal drive through education and business engagement.
  • Contributing—dismantling barriers to the full social, political, and economic participation of once-marginalized minoritie

Overall, the report found that:

  • The American South has 54 million more residents today than five decades ago and accounts for 49 percent of total U.S. population growth since 1970. States along the Atlantic seaboard, as well as Texas, have grown more robustly than states of the inner South. Texas, Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina all have more than doubled in size and account for three-fourths of the region’s population growth during this period.
  • Meanwhile, most Southern states still lag the national average in K-12 achievement.
    Public schools educate eight out of 10 Southern young people, but a decade of budgetary austerity coupled with an expansion of school choice has left most states with a lower relative level of public investment in public schools than before the Great Recession.
  • Almost every Southern state reduced fiscal support for higher education during 2011-2016.
  • The disparity among whites and African Americans with postsecondary credentials has grown in most Southern states even while a larger percentage of whites and African Americans now hold them.
  • Nearly 80 percent of Southern adults over 75 identify as white, but less than 50 percent of Southern children under 15 identify similarly.
  • The South has hubs of excellence and innovation in medicine, health, and science, yet millions of Southerners still lack adequate health insurance; the failure to expand Medicaid in states across the South not only makes it difficult for patients to receive and afford care, but for rural hospitals to keep their doors open.

The report also recommends solutions, including:

  • Community investments that build an “infrastructure of opportunity”—the policies and systemic practices that create clear and deliberate pathways to connect young people with educational credentials and jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage.
  • Addressing systems change to fulfill a vision of sustainable growth through leadership development, strategies for scale, and technical assistance.
  • Connecting rural areas to nearby metropolitan hubs in a symbiotic relationship that supplies labor for metro areas and new pathways for rural youth.
  • Creating a strong, dual-customer talent development system that enables both workers and employers to be competitive in the marketplace.
  • Acknowledging the shifting demographics of increasing racial and ethnic diversity in the region.

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