For years I have been clipping newspaper stories about South Carolina's various quality-of-life indices. You know — average income, life expectancy, infant mortality, obesity, violence, drop-out rate — the kind of things you might want to know if you were thinking about moving here.
I use the numbers to write a column periodically or to update the little civic talk I am occasionally asked to deliver. And the numbers are always troubling. As you probably know, our state generally ranks first in the worst and last in the best. It is a tradition we share with most of the Southern states. In fact, the joke is that only one state keeps us from being dead last in everything — hence, the oft-spoken benediction, "Thank God for Mississippi."
Well, it looks like my newspaper clipping days are over. The Center for a Better South, based in Charleston, has just released its 2011 Briefing Book on the South, an online statistical profile of the region (bettersouth.org/publications), using 36 indicators and more than 70 data points from an array of sources for each Southern state.
The Better South report provides a wealth of data about the Palmetto State; for example, South Carolina has the 10th-highest poverty rate in the nation and ranks fifth in child poverty. We have the second-highest rate of food insecurity — it used to be called hunger — and we are the sixth-worst place to raise children.
We rank eighth in diabetes, eighth in obesity, fifth in infant mortality, fourth in premature births, 11th in births to teen mothers, and 12th in adult smoking.
Want some education numbers? We are next to last in the nation in high school graduation rates, and only 62.2 percent of public high school students graduate on time. Perhaps one reason for this is that we have the 19th lowest level of expenditure per student in our public schools, at $10,051.
And we are a violent state, ranking fifth in violent crime, seventh in domestic violence, and third in traffic fatalities.
Get the picture?
These bad numbers illustrate a nexus of ancient social and political pathologies. Here's one I found of particular interest: Despite what our Republican governor and legislature would have you believe, we have the eighth-lowest tax burden in the nation, at 8.1 percent of personal income. If lower taxes were the key to jobs and prosperity, South Carolina would be booming, instead of carrying the fourth-highest level of unemployment in the country.
All these numbers were made possible by Andy Brack, founder and president of the Center for a Better South and a candidate for the Charleston City Council District 11 seat. "A hundred and 50 years after shots were fired at Fort Sumter, we have a Civil War hangover," Brack told me last week. "We have not invested in education and infrastructure." (And with the eighth-lowest tax rate in the nation, it is not likely we will start soon.)
Speaking of the South generally, he said, "It's amazing when you look at statistics across the board. We really are at the bottom of the nation.
"We have made progress, but so has the rest of the country," he said. "We still lag. We are still trying to catch up."
In ranking the states with the lowest household income, Southern states hold eight of the bottom 10 positions; South Carolina is number eight. But there is good news in the survey, Brack said. Virginia ranked No. 44, showing that a Southern state could break out of the pack and become a leader.
"Southern states can be mainstream," Brack said. "Virginia raises the standard for everyone."
If the 2011 Briefing Book is to have any impact, someone has to read it. Brack sent it out electronically two weeks ago to 1,500 academics, policymakers, media figures, and legislators around the region.
That's a good start, but beyond reading the report, policymakers and lawmakers have to care. They have to give a damn. And this is where law and policy have failed in the South for centuries. The people who run this state — and all the Southern states — are quite comfortable with things as they are. And there is no reason to think this will change soon. The only people who could make those smug, greedy bastards give a damn — I'm talking about the voters here — do not go to the polls on Election Day.
You see, South Carolina has the 11th lowest rate of voter participation in the nation based on 2008 election figures. And that number will soon be dropping. Our General Assembly just passed a voter ID law that will potentially disenfranchise 180,000 more South Carolinians.
This poor, old state is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, and most of them can be traced to the ballot box.