Framing the Debate from a Worker's View

By Ken Johnson

Vol. 10, No. 2, 1988, pp. 24-25

For more than two decades, Southern governments, Chambers of Commerce, business supporters and others, when measuring the South's economic well-being and quality of life, have framed the debate on economic development and prosperity in the most restrictive terms.

These debates have focused almost entirely on the number of new jobs created. Obviously, when measured along these lines, the South of cheap land, low wages and low taxes has done exceedingly well. For the ten-year period 1975-1984, for example, Texas, Florida, and Georgia were among the top five in the U.S. in new job growth, and North Carolina and Virginia were among the top ten. But absent from these measures has been any discussion of the impact of these new jobs on the workers themselves and of the question of whether these new jobs raised the standard of


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living for the average workers of the region.

The Climate for Workers in the U. S., the report released last year by the Southern Labor Institute, sought to broaden the discussion on economic development and job creation policy. The report challenges the notion that economic development depends on cheap land, unreasonable tax concessions through industry, and an unorganized, untrained and uneducated work force willing to work for less than workers elsewhere. The document, sharply different from the usual business climate report, illustrates that despite nation-leading numerical gains in job growth and recent improvements in state financing of education, the Southern region has failed to meet national standards in almost every other way. The South exhibits the smallest gain in wages and per-capita personal income, the largest proportion of the working poor, and the highest incidences of poverty.

To quote directly from the report, "The challenge and the task that face the South today and in the future is to create jobs with the incomes and benefits needed to bring the region's workers above the poverty level. Not just new jobs as in the past, but jobs that will significantly improve the standards of living for people who work full time year round."

The picture has changed. Local economic developers can no longer rely on the South's usual selling points: low-cost of production and an abundant labor supply to attract traditional manufacturing jobs. Government and private sectors alike have been torn by import pressures and technological advances which have significantly reduced the job-creating potential.

Increasingly the potential for job growth is in service industries, indigenous small businesses, and information based industries which have less demand for low production costs and more need for a well-educated work force, high quality of life, rapid transfer of goods and information, and access to financial capital.

In short, our competitive future rests on the quality of our work force and on the investments we're willing to make in the men and women who produce the goods and services that bring economic gains.

Southeastern states have banked their future on job growth while neglecting the rewards and the protection of their workers. Southern states fill the bottom rung of nearly all of the more than two dozen indicators considered in this study of the nation's labor climate. The South's extraordinary job growth in jobs during the past ten years has been accompanied by the least change in personal income of any U.S. region.

Working people are more likely to be poor in the South than any other U.S. region. Southeastern states have the lowest per-capita income in the nation. Nine Southern states are among the bottom thirteen in manufacturing wages, averaging less than $8 per hour. In eight southeastern states, more than 40 percent of the manufacturing jobs pay less than $8 an hour.

Treated as a percent of all the manufacturing jobs in each state, the results show why the southeastern states can rank high in job growth and yet rank low in wages and income. A significant finding of the report reveals the poor standings of the southeastern states with regard to statutory protection of workers, governing the workplace, protecting workers' rights and safety and providing compensation for disability and unemployment, the South falls considerably lower than all the other U.S. regions.

The report examines the states to see how many of fourteen common statutes protecting workers were in effect and whether or not their provision made them meaningful. The eight states with the least worker protection are in the southeast. In Alabama and Mississippi, not one of the fourteen laws had been enacted. In South Carolina, only one. In Virginia and Louisiana only two; in Tennessee, Florida and North Carolina, only three. Six of the nine states in the nation with no state minimum wages are in the Southeast. At the bottom of the benefit scale, five of the six states that pay the least for permanent disability, under $200 per week, are in the Southeast. In the nation's twelve worst states, the weekly unemployment benefits is $100 or less, and eight of the twelve are in the Southeast, with Mississippi on the bottom.

Until recently, blacks and women had been excluded from traditional white male occupations; officials, administrators, professionals, technicians and craft-workers. Southern states ranked on the bottom in the percent of working women and minorities employed in these jobs.

The report also considers several indicators of the states' general quality of life. Among the findings are some historically familiar refrains. The Northeastern states report the lowest rates of poverty, from 8 percent in Connecticut to 13 percent in New York. The Southeastern states remain the poorest region. Mississippi, with 24 percent of its population in poverty, ranks worst. Blacks are more likely to be poor in the Southeast. The nine states with the highest proportion of black poor are in the Southeast. Rates of poverty for blacks in the southeast range from Virginia's 25 percent to Mississippi's 44 percent, again, the highest in the nation.

A telling indicator of the quality of health care in the state is its infant mortality rate. Sadly, a baby is not likely to survive its first year of life in the Southeast. The two states with the worst infant mortality rates, over fifteen deaths for every thousand births, are Mississippi and South Carolina. The eleven worst states, all with death rates of thirteen or higher, include West Virginia, Alabama, North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana and Georgia.

We have heard and will continue to hear about the Sunbelt, but job growth in the Southeast has occurred in large part at the bottom end of the wage scale and has not improved significantly the conditions or prospects for wage earners in the region. As the Southeast economy follows the national trend of fewer manufacturing and more service sector jobs, the region's employed and unemployed workers are less likely to see much change in their personal conditions. Reversing these trends, of course, will depend largely on our ability and willingness to increase worker participation in both public policy and the workplace decision making process.

Ken Johnson is director of the Southern Labor Institute and co-author of The Climate for Workers in the United States.