A few years back, Columbia public relations guru Bud Ferillo made a film about several economically distressed counties that he dubbed the “Corridor of Shame.” This area, which stretched along Interstate 95 in South Carolina from Dillon County to Jasper County, got a lot of attention when then-presidential candidate Barack Obama toured an old Dillon middle school in the run-up to the 2008 election.
But did you ever wonder whether South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame was an anomaly — or whether something similar was happening on the other sides of our state borders? Unfortunately, similar conditions continue, extending north to Tidewater Virginia and curving south and west across middle Georgia and Alabama before swinging north to the Mississippi Delta.
Our Corridor of Shame is just a piece of a Southern Crescent of Shame of economically distressed areas inhabited by more than 4 million people. They live in a rural South shaped by long-term poverty and lack of economic opportunities outside of agriculture. [Below, see map of poverty in 2008; the darker that the red is, the higher the amount of poverty.]
This Southern Crescent is home to as many people as live in the whole state of South Carolina. But unlike cities with the dynamism of Charleston, Columbia and Greenville or the increasing manufacturing prowess of Sumter, Anderson and Florence, the 100+ counties in the Crescent seem to be places where hope may go to die.
That’s not to say there aren’t success stories. Downtowns in places like Hampton, S.C., and Blakely, Ga., are getting new lives. Some forward-looking communities have taken extra steps to plan and innovate. Over recent years, for example, Vidalia, Ga., has branded itself as the go-to place for sweet, delicious onions. Prosperity shows throughout the town, but 25 percent of the people in Toombs County live in poverty. Or look at Hartsville, S.C., where Sonoco is making big investments in local education efforts to help create a more skilled work force for the future.
Still, there’s an sense of gloom in these Crescent towns, hamlets and crossroads that mixes with a pride of being less complicated and more friendly, relaxed and personal than generally found in suburbs. A bank employee in Fitzgerald, Ga., this week reflected that her young son was growing up in a good place, but schools in her nearby hometown didn’t have the high-tech tools that her brother’s son had in his school in Seattle. She worried that he’d be left behind.
It’s not hard to see the Crescent stand out on maps that display how its counties have higher rates of poverty, unemployment, single family households, chlamydia, obesity and diabetes. With the blink of an eye, it’s easy to see that these areas easily correlate with another map at the left — that of where enslaved people lived in 1860.
Folks, the Southern Crescent is a remnant of plantation life — a region that has been the soft underbelly of the Deep South for generations. One hundred and fifty years after the Civil War, it’s time that this area starts receiving the same attention that Appalachia did in the 1960s War on Poverty.
The Center for a Better South is starting a three-prong effort to focus attention on the Southern Crescent. First, it has a new Web site — SouthernCrescent.org — that highlights a different image of life in the region every other day. Second, it seeks to work with nonprofits and foundations to fund research and studies on how to coordinate better and smarter delivery of existing services to infuse more dynamism in the region. And the Center encourage creation of a special national study commission to recommend federal and state policies to raise living standards.
This effort may not cost a lot of money. The Center presumes that if various state and federal government bureaucracies get out of their comfort zones and work with engaged rural communities, they can figure out ways to coordinate services better and create more economic opportunities.
After a week of riding roads in South Carolina and Georgia through Crescent communities, it’s clear that millions of rural Southerners want more opportunities for their counties. Now is the time to get moving so they don’t get left behind even more.