Can the South Sustain the American Dream?

BY SALLY GREENE

MDC, Inc., the Durham-based nonprofit, has just published its periodic “State of the South” report, in which it takes the measure of the economic and social progress of the region and makes pragmatic recommendations for moving forward. The series, begun in 1996, is the brainchild of UNC professor Ferrel Guillory, who saw a need to highlight and promote the manifest ways in which public investment complements private-sector innovation to improve the lives and livelihoods of us all.

This year’s report focuses on the next generation: the 15- to 24-year-olds who make up 15 percent of the region’s population. This generation’s parents grew up in the wake of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s. And yet, as Guillory writes in the report’s introduction, the South’s teenagers and young adults face an economic future fraught with a lack of upward mobility and greater uncertainty than their parents and grandparents encountered as they completed schooling, formed families, and advanced into working age. At the root of the uncertainty lies a pervasive doubt: whether the South can sustain the American Dream of each generation moving up and doing better than previous generations.

The data confirms that some of the southern metro areas ranked at the top for business and careers–including Raleigh and Charlotte–are also among the highest in inequality, poverty, and lack of mobility. Throughout the region there is “an absence of long-range vision and low expectations for too many of its people–a failure to imagine a future for people and places beyond the current trajectory.”

Policy decisions at the national and state level have driven much of the disinvestment in public resources that has contributed to these sharp inequities. Hence

there is all the more reason why communities, especially growing metropolitan areas with adequate resources, must initiate efforts to give the rising generation of Southerners experiences and life-tools to pursue a future better than their parents.

Local communities are urged to create “infrastructures of opportunity”– to strengthen the support systems that would enable 15- to 24-year-olds to achieve their potential. Such infrastructure will necessarily be “place-based, taking advantage of local assets and addressing a community’s distinctive challenges while acknowledging regional and even national policies and pressures that influence local conditions.”

In a number of the areas where local investment is singled out as most critical, Chapel Hill is already on the case:

  • Public transit: “connects individuals to school and work and has the potential to reduce isolation of marginalized neighborhoods and populations.”
  • Affordable housing: “has the potential to reverse are at least mitigate some of the consequences of exclusion.”
  • Criminal justice reform: keeps ex-offenders, including juveniles, from paying all over again in lack of access to housing and jobs.

Broadband access for low-income households is another crucial “infrastructure of opportunity,” and here Chapel Hill is falling behind expectations. In 2011, Brewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive in San Francisco, offered to donate equipment and staff time to the town to test a free wireless internet service for students in a selected public housing neighborhood. Over the next two years, with the cooperation of UNC-Chapel Hill and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, a powerful system of wireless equipment was installed to serve the Craig-Gomains neighborhood as a pilot project. After surmounting “almost every possible obstacle,” according to one report, the system is up and running. Four families are testing the network, using computers donated by the Kramden Institute.

To everyone’s surprise, the level of usage quickly began to extend way beyond that of the schoolchildren in four families. Every day, more than 50 devices in an area less than 2,000 feet in diameter access the neighborhood’s free wireless system. Some of these devices are within the four homes–smart phones and tablet computers, in addition to the test computers. Clearly, there is a great unmet need for this essential infrastructure and the opportunities that it makes available.

And yet, despite its being a rousing technological success, this project is stalled. It needs stronger staff support to keep it going and growing.

We must rise to this challenge. Our own next generation deserves no less. Chapel Hill should not only be providing free broadband wireless to its public housing residents: we should be leading the way.

This article has been cross-posted with permission on sallygreene.org/state-south-2014.




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