Pandemic to Prosperity: South (Q1 | 2023)

Dr. Jeanine Abrams McLean, President, Fair Count

Dr. Sarah Beth Gehl, Director, The Southern Economic Advancement Project

Jan 19, 2023 – A civic ecosystem has been burgeoning for decades in the South and it offers a path to turn the tragedy of the pandemic into an opportunity to build prosperity and progress for all. Data and civic engagement will be critical for this to occur. Together, the Southern Economic Advancement Project (SEAP) — which works to lift up policies that address particular vulnerabilities in the South — and Fair Count — whose work focuses on strengthening pathways to continued civic participation — partnered with the National Conference on Citizenship to document the state of the South during the pandemic. State and local governments prioritizing projects for the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act can use these findings to target disparities that ultimately undermine community resilience.

Three years since Covid was first announced on U.S. soil, Americans’ general attitude towards the pandemic has shifted — with many utilizing fewer safety precautions like social distancing and masking. But Long Covid, which can be debilitating, has affected one-third of everyone infected, and may be taking a bite out of the American workforce. Moreover, the Covid crisis accelerated several pre-existing trends such as growing anxiety and depression and maternal mortality. And increasing working-age death rates are contributing to declining U.S. life expectancy. Job openings outnumber available workers and, although inflation is declining, supply chain issues and skyrocketing corporate profits will have to be addressed to fully reign it in. As we brace for the challenges ahead, our review of 25 indicators highlights areas of opportunity across the U.S. with a particular focus on the South.

Health. Covid hospitalization rates are increasing once again, especially for Americans aged 70+, many of whom have not received the most updated bivalent booster shot. Moreover, the Covid crisis exacerbated increases in anxiety and depression, overdose deaths, pregnancy-related deaths, and traffic fatalities.1 Because people of color experience discrimination in prenatal and other medical care, benefit from fewer public investments in traffic safety, and receive lower wages and fewer employment opportunities, Hispanic, Black, and American Indian populations have been most impacted by these increasing death rates and have experienced the greatest declines in life expectancy. 

Economy. Jobs reached a new record of 153.7 million in December but the U.S. workforce has not kept pace, with 1.75 job openings for every job seeker. Americans are retiring in record numbers, roughly 1 million parents are sidelined because of lack of childcare, and up to 4 million workers may be unable to work due to Long Covid. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act is projected to add millions of jobs in new industries and ensuring Americans have health care, family care, and relevant job skills will be essential for meeting employers’ demand for labor. 

Health care. Across states that have not implemented Medicaid expansion – including AL, GA, FL, MS, NC, SC, and TN – 18% of adults lack health insurance, compared to 10% elsewhere. In addition, 10 of 12 Southern states have preempted localities from passing paid sick leave ordinances. Lack of paid sick leave reduces worker productivity, contributes to financial hardship, and increases overdose and suicide deaths. Working-age death rates from overdose, suicide, and other external causes were 33% higher in Southern states than non-Southern states.

Corporate profits and wages. In 2022, wage growth (4.5%) did not keep up with inflation (6.5%). However, corporate profits skyrocketed from a record-high of $2.5 trillion in Q3 2020 to $3.0 trillion in Q3 2022. Recent inflation has been driven by several factors including supply chain disruptions, rising wages, and increasing corporate consolidation and profits. Policymakers can rein in inflation by curbing corporations’ ability to raise prices through measures that increase competition. In stark contrast to this, 10 of 12 Southern states have preempted localities from raising the minimum wage as high as $15/hr.

Food and housing. Lack of affordable housing has become a chronic concern with one-fourth of all renters paying the majority of their income for rent. In MS, WV, and FL, about half of those who were late on rent or mortgage were afraid of impending eviction or foreclosure in December. And about 1 in 6 households in MS, KY, GA, LA, and WV had trouble putting food on the table. 

Climate and infrastructure. 75% of Southerners have experienced at least 1 disaster in the last 3 years compared to 64% of non-Southerners. Louisianans averaged 80 hours of power interruptions in 2021, largely due to disasters. A more connected national power transmission system would reduce power outages by moving energy from unaffected areas to damaged areas.  It would also allow new sources of renewable energy to move from parts of the country with ample wind and sun, to other parts of the country. 

Misinformation and democracy. 75% of Southern counties have 1 or no newspapers, leaving residents lacking trusted community information and transparency. 21% of Southern counties have poor internet access (compared to 6% outside the South) leaving them reliant on polarized national media or misinformation-rich social media. The 118th Congress is the most racially and ethnically diverse in the nation’s history but still lacks the diversity of the nation it represents.  And nearly half of Southerners are represented by a House member who has denied the validity of the 2020 election results.

As Southern legislators convene over the next several months, these challenges should be at the forefront of their agendas. State and local governments can utilize the billions of dollars from the American Rescue Plan, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act to invest in community needs such as broadband access, affordable housing, and climate action. In response to the pandemic, Congress and two administrations have worked to address these challenges — efforts which highlight the need for and power of shared facts and shared data, which are vital to our system of democratic self-rule.