In the early 19th century, travelers in the young American republic commented on the poverty they saw throughout the South. The slaves, of course, were deprived, but so were a vast majority of white people.
At the top of the Southern social order was a fabled planter class in such places as Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, and Tidewater, Va. Below them was a narrow class of prosperous small farmers, merchants, and professionals. And below those were the white farmers and urban laborers, earning a fraction of what their Northern counterparts made.
The reason for endemic Southern poverty was clear enough. Poor whites were forced to compete economically with slaves, both as laborers and farmers. Today, it is largely forgotten that slaves were trained in such skills as masonry, carpentry, glazing, pottery, and stone cutting. Their owners rented them out to build much of Charleston and other Southern cities. White craftsmen were forced to compete, literally, at slave wages.
Likewise, it was impossible for small, independent farmers to compete with slave labor. Many went bust, selling out to plantation owners and becoming tenants on what had once been their own farms. By 1860, the number of slaveholders and the number of land owners were declining across the South as the planter class consolidated its ownership of both. And in the process, they further impoverished the white rural population.
Some things never change. The South remains the poorest region in the nation, with the concomitant social problems associated with poverty: violence, poor education, disease, short life expectancy, environmental degradation.
Today the South is filling up with heavy manufacturers — automotive and aerospace, primarily — from around the world. (The Charleston area has landed Boeing and Volvo in the last decade.) They are not going to Northern states or the West Coast, which have the culture and the skilled work force of heavy manufacturing. They come here because they see an English-speaking third world country with low wages and minimal regulation, where state legislatures would rather protect corporate investment than the health and safety of their citizens.
I have written about this for years, warning that no matter how many heavy manufacturers we bring to South Carolina, we will remain at the bottom of national rankings until the attitudes of the people who run this state change. In the current edition of American Prospect magazine, Harold Meyerson takes this view a step further.
He writes: “… the South today shares more features with its antebellum ancestor than it has in a very long time. Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies…
“One reason wages continued to fall throughout the Deep South, despite the influx of jobs, is the region’s distinctive absence of legislation and institutions that protect workers’ interests.”
As Meyerson writes, two factors make the South appealing to manufacturers. The first is the rise in wages in China, which are becoming competitive with Southern wages. The second is the South’s “flexible” workforce. For those unfamiliar with econo-speak, “flexible” in this context means low-wage.
Now this flexibility is seeping across the Mason-Dixon Line and affecting economic conditions throughout the nation. Meyerson writes, “As Northern Republicans adopt their Southern counterparts’ antipathy to unions and support for voter suppression, and as workers’ earnings in the North fall toward Southern levels.”
The Southernization of the American workforce affects more than manufacturing. An important agent of this low-wage creep has been Arkansas-based Walmart. Meyerson explains, “The expansion of Walmart from its Southern base into the North and West has had a profound effect on the incomes of retail workers and of workers all along its supply chain. Ferociously anti-union, … Walmart directs its managers to keep payroll expenses between 5.5 percent and 8 percent of sales, though the norm in retail marketing is between 8 percent and 12 percent. Wages in counties where a Walmart has been operating for eight years, economist David Neumark has found, are 2.5 percent to 4.8 percent lower than those in comparable counties with no Walmart outlets.”
Of course, there is nothing new in any of this. “The South’s aversion to both minimum-wage standards and unions is rooted deep within the DNA of white Southern elites,” Meyerson writes.
The workers who built the Old South were chattel slaves. The legal status of Southern workers has changed, but the attitudes toward those workers by the elites who run the Southern states remains largely the same. Now those attitudes are spreading to the rest of the nation.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear — Race, Politics and The Republican Party in South Carolina.