Local creativity and pride make difference for South's future

The American South is facing a growing disparity between ``haves'' and ``have-nots.'' The upshot could mean that the frustrated, rural poor bring Southern cities the kind of unrest that rocked Northern ghettos in past decades.

But it does not have to be that way, says William Winter, a former governor of Mississippi and a leading light on Southern development, as he paints this scenario of the region's choices.

The South, the nation's poorest region, is at a major crossroads in its history, according to Mr. Winter.

He compares the mid-1980s to the beginning of the post-World War II era when the rural poor began leaving the countryside by the busload for Northern cities and to the launching of the civil rights struggles that revolutionized Southern public life in the 1960s.

At the current crossroads, the dynamic urban South of Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Orlando, and Jackson is taking a different road than the waning, economically moribund South of small towns and countryside. The disparities are growing.

What difference does it make?

Apart from humanitarian concerns about the South's large rural population, the disparity could draw increasing numbers of poor and ill-educated people into Southern cities, usually without the skills to find work there. The upshot, Winter says, could be the kind of frustration and unrest familiar in Northern cities in the 1960s and early '70s.

Winter was chairman of the regionwide Commission on the Future of the South, which issued its report last month, and of a panel on rural Southern development that reported last spring.

Winter has found that rural communities, faced with an agricultural depression and the loss of low-wage industrial jobs to overseas competition, can do much to help themselves.

But they need to change their strategies. ``It's not enough to sit by the telephone and wait for that call from Toledo, Ohio,'' offering to move a branch plant to the area, he says.

Instead, communities need to be more strategic in their planning, taking advantage of particular local products, resources, and geographical location and developing local enterprises.

``I can drive around Mississippi right now and look at two communities not far apart, where the socioeconomic factors are not too different, and one's making it and one is not,'' he says.

The difference, he believes, is in local creativity and the local pride that leads to team effort.

For the South as a whole, the most important project is education, for adults as well as children. One in four Southern adults is functionally illiterate, Winter notes.

``These people are not competitive for jobs in the kind of economy we're in now. They're not even subject to being retrained. We've got to pick them up and get them into some sort of marketable condition.''

With some literacy and training, he adds, ``Even if they can't get jobs in rural areas, then they can jobs when they get to the city.''

Better education will cost more money, Winter admits, but he likens his own state, the nation's poorest, to a struggling young business that needs more investment than the established businesses it competes with.

The rural South has suffered under recent federal policies, Winter notes. While a strong dollar has sent many low-wage Southern jobs overseas, Mississippi has lost more federal revenue-sharing funds to ``new federalism'' cutbacks that any other state, proportionally.

``National policy needs to recognize disparities between states,'' he says.

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