Atlanta — In quiet meetings and after-dinner conversations, Southern economists, historians, and others are asking: Where is the South headed in the '80s? Will the boom of the past decade continue? If so, what further changes will it bring to the South?
Experts in economics, demography, and political trends forecast the following developments in the South:
* A gradual slowing in the 1980s of the rate of growth in population and jobs.
At the same time, however, the South will be the fastest-growing region in terms of population -- both in percent of growth and actual numbers. Even the West, which has been growing slightly faster than the South, will not match the region in coming years, according to the US Census Bureau's latest forecasts for the next two decades.
The continued population growth means that retirees heading for Florida are likely to find most choice spots along the coast already taken. And newcomers with jobs in cities such as Atlanta may have to commute longer distances in order to find the kind of suburban homes they want, or buy older homes in the city itself and fix them up.
* Higher incomes, generally, and fewer poor.
Incomes for blacks are likely to continue to rise, but so will the cost of living -- for everyone.
And there is no guarantee that the many blacks so far bypassed by the South's new prosperity will share in it in the '80s. Many of the new jobs will be go to skilled workers in predominantly white areas if past trends continue.
* A good chance of Ronald Reagan carrying much of the region in November.
The South, political specialists say, remains strongly Democratic, especially in state and local elections. But the basic conservatism of the area is undiminished -- expressing itself in the election of the current batch of pragmatic, management-oriented governors and in a tendency to back Republican presidential candidates.
Jimmy Carter's 1976 win in the South -- very close in several states -- is attributed by some to Southern pride and seen as a one-time phenomenon.
(The reader must be warned that the "South" is a region that varies in size and makeup depending on who defines it. The US Department of Commerce, in its economic reports, does not include Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Virginia, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia in the South. But its Census Bureau includes all of them when giving population figures for the region. The so- called Deep South used to be conveniently defined as the 11 states that made up the Confederate States of America; but that unit apparently has gone out of style.)
Here, in greater detail, is the outlook for the region in the 1980s, according to the experts:
More people and more jobs -- even at a slowing rate -- pose some tough challenges to Southern leaders: how to attract industries that will not heavily pollute; how to improve race relations and widen opportunities for minorities; how to manage urban sprawl.
"The analysis of Southern cities reveals that they are subject to the same forces that have contributed to urban decline in the earlier-industrialized regions of the country," warned the Southern Growth Policies Board in 1978.
Today the SGPB is beginning a study looking at the future of the South in the '80s. Its initial assessments are far from rosy.
"The biggest problem is the public sector," says E. Evan Brunson, the SGPB's research director. Bigger urban populations are straining city services. Newcomers, especially, are demanding more and better services and schools in places such as Raleigh, N.C. Sometimes those doing the demanding are even willing to pay more taxes, he says.
Local taxes are going up, he says.
And that's not the only thing going up, says Washington- based SGPB economist Bernard Weinstein.
"By the end of the '80's, the South will no longer be able to market itself on the basis of cheap energy, cheap labor, inexpensive housing, or lower overall living costs," he says.
The South, a net energy importer, has not adapted its industry to use less energy as successfully as has the Northeast, where energy costs have been higher , says Dr. Weinstein. So rising fuel costs will be felt more deeply in the South, he explains.
"The lower cost of living, which has been such a strong magnet attracting industry and people to the South will evaporate within a few years," he predicts. Among other things public transportation systems are often inferior to those of the Northeast, Weinstein says.
The result? The SGPB sees a slowing of the rate at which industries move to the South as the '80s progress.
The flow of people to the South may remain constant, says the US Bureau of the Census, but lower fertility rates nationally lead the bureau to predict a slowing in the rate of population increase in the region.
Larry Long, senior research associate for the bureau's Center for Demographic Studies, outlined these changes ahead for the South:
1. The region's population will grow faster than that of any other part of the US in the next 20 years, based on middle- range forecasts. But the projected rate of growth -- an average of 1.2 percent a year, represents a slowing from the 1.52 percent rate of 1970 to 1975.
(By contrast, the West grew at a rate of about 1.6 percent a year from 1970 to 1975 and is expected to grow at an average yearly rate of 1.17 until the year 2000.)
2. The South's population is expected to increase from an estimated 73 million this year to 92 million in 2000, retaining its place as the most populous region of the US.
(By contrast, the West, the second fastest-growing region, is expected to increase from about 41 million this year to 51 million by the year 2000.)
"The traditional income gap between the South and the rest of the country is probably going to be closed in this decade," says Dr. Long.
As more jobs are created, payrolls increase, boosting incomes for some already in the South, attracting others to the South.
Atlanta, Houston, and Miami are perhaps the best-known centers of the South's increasing wealth. The skylines of these cities continue to be altered by construction of high-rise office buildings. A major new airline terminal complex is about to open just outside Atlanta.
The Department of Commerce predicts some 2 million new jobs will be created between 1980 and 1985 in what it calls the Deep South. Three-fourths of these will be service industry jobs such as restaurants, hotels, gas stations, television repairs, and baby sitting.
Already, white-collar jobs outnumber those in the blue collar sector by 7 to 5 in the South, the Commerce Department says. Only about 4 percent of Southern workers are employed in agriculture.
As one economist notes, the South is going through an industrial and post-industrial revolution at the same time. More industries continue to move in, but nonindustry jobs are the fastest growing.
As incomes for many continue to grow in the South, historian Thomas E. Williams of Emory University in Decatur, Ga., sees some intangible challenges: "I don't know if what you're going to produce isn't a southern California. I'm not sure that's good.
"Simply to pile more goods on more goods on more goods and make that the end of life? I think that's going to happen," he says.
But he also sees some hope of moderation. "One thing often overlooked by journalists, and sometimes historians, is the enormous power of religion."
Though he is uncertain how it might occur, Professor Thomas thinks religious values could slow the trend toward materialistic overkill.
Rev. H. Earl Peacock of the Clairmont Hills Baptist Church near Atlanta is not so sure. "We've been taught that progress is a bigger home, a car. . . ."
But, he says, religion might help persuade those acquiring more to share more with the church.
Then he adds: "I think maybe now we're turning a corner. People -- young people -- are asking the question: 'Is materialism all there is to life?'" He sees some small evidence of such questioning in his own church.
But for many in the South the question is one of catching up with incomes earned in the rest of the nation. The South still is the poorest region in the US.
"More than anywhere else in the nation, the risks of hunger and malnutrition are daily facts of life for many of the South's poor families," says Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council.
The SRC is a private, nonprofit organization working to reduce poverty and discrimination in the region.
Comparing the South with the rest of the nation, the SRC says: "White elderly Southerners are twice as likely to be poor; black Southerners are three times as likely to be poor; nonmetro residents and large families are four times as likely to be poor; and black elderly residents are five times as likely to be poor as non-Southerners."
Many Southerners -- and most visitors to this region -- seldom see these poor people. In urban areas the poor, as in many Northern cities, are crammed into low-cost housing projects or dilapidated neighborhoods.
In small towns like Madison, Ga., some of the poor live in shacks only a block off the main street, behind elegant homes with neatly trimmed lawns.
Some of these poor will be helped by the new industries and service jobs that will continue to open up in the South during the '80s. But progress will bypass many if past trends continue.
Industry coming South is often "steered" away from predominantly black areas by state officials, the SRC contends.Many industry owners do not want to locate in black areas for fear black employees will unionize, the SRC and others say.
"You can promise them [blacks] pie in the sky and they'll vote for it every week," contends Billy Martin, the white mayor of Lexington, Miss., referring to black support of unions.
Opposition to unions continues to run deep in the South. The AFL-CIO has been trying for years to organize the J. P. Stevens textile mills.
But low wages and lack of unions in many Southern industries are seen as one of the main attractions to new industries coming to the South or expansion of those already here. And there are many workers, as well, who oppose unions.
The union issue aside, a fierce scramble is on in many parts of the South to attract industry and other job-producing activity. One of the most ardent forces behind such efforts is the Mississippi Research and Development Center, based in Jackson, Miss.
Center director Kenneth C. Wagner, interviewed in Jackson, described efforts to lift Mississippi out of its rank as the poorest state in the union.
In the Jackson area itself, the center coordinated efforts of the area's top businessmen to revitalize the county and city. New parks were added, the local government structure was modernized, capital expenditures were increased. Efforts were made to attract new industries to the improved business climate.
By 1971, the sixth year of the effort, 3,300 new manufacturing jobs had been added; property had been reappraised and property more evenly taxed; Jackson's bond ratings had improved.
"Jackson's been booming ever since," Dr. Wagner says.
As for the rest of the state, he says: "There's a few healthy growth centers. The other areas are floating along or bogging down."
The center has identified poor counties and the kind of industries that could best be expanded or attracted to them.
But getting such plans to work is another thing. In the city of Durant, this reporter showed the center's list of prospective job sources to Mayor C. H. Blanton Jr. He had never seen the list. Further, he pointed to some industries listed for possible expansion and said they were laying workers off.
He said he was making no efforts himself to go out looking for industries for the area. He has no staff for the task and relies on the state to help, he said.
Meanwhile, Florida, the region's fastest- growing state (due to migration) faces some different challenges.
"We're not running out of sunshine, but we are running out of desirable coastline sites," says state economist Tony Huggins.
Fresh water sources are being more heavily called upon; environmental concerns are being raised more frequently; housing and land costs are soaring in many parts of the state; the needs of the growing elderly population are increasing.
Like planners elsewhere, those in Florida wonder how rising gasoline prices will affect migration to the South -- and, especially in Florida, how it will affect tourism.
Economist Huggins expects tourism in Florida to slow from the level of the 1970s, but adds: "We still see the automobile as dominant."
As the South rushes ahead in some respects, lagging in other respects, Leslie W. Dunbar, former director of the Southern Regional Council, is optimistic that many of the challenges ahead can be met.
"A force is building up in this country, of people joined by mutual respect, keen to work but at only that which makes some sense to their primary vocation as human beings, aspiring to decency."
He calls this force "a new national breed. Southerners are part of it."