Money  /  Explainer

Capitalism and (Under)Development in the American South

In the American South, an oligarchy of planters enriched itself through slavery. Pervasive underdevelopment is their legacy.

Unlike the industrialising North and, eventually, the developing and urbanising West, the high stratification and concentrated wealth of the 19th-century South laid the foundations for its 20th-century problems. The region’s richest white people profited wildly from various forms of unfree labour, from slavery and penal servitude to child indenture and debt peonage; they also invested very little in roads, schools, utilities and other forms of infrastructure and development. The combination of great wealth and extreme maldistribution has left people in the South impoverished, underpaid, underserved and undereducated, with the shortest lifespans in all of the United States. Southerners, both Black and white, are less educated and less healthy than other Americans. They are more violent and more likely to die young.

Now, 86 years after Roosevelt’s report, the South has returned to historically high levels of economic inequality, lagging behind the rest of the US by every measurable standard. The plight of the South is a direct result of its long history of brutal labour exploitation and its elites’ refusal to invest in their communities. They have kept the South in dire poverty, stifled creativity and innovation, and have all but prevented workers from attaining any kind of real power.

With the rapid industrialisation spurred by the Second World War, the South made great economic strides, but never quite caught up with the prosperity of the rest of the US. While the South’s gross domestic product has remained around 90 per cent of the US rate for dozens of years, deindustrialisation of the 1990s devastated rural areas. Since then, hospitals and medical clinics have closed in record numbers, and deaths of despair (those from alcohol, drugs or suicide) have skyrocketed, as has substance abuse. Southerners in general are isolated and lonely, and wealth and power are heavily concentrated: there are a few thousand incredibly wealthy families – almost all of them the direct descendants of the Confederacy’s wealthiest slaveholders – a smaller-than-average middle class, and masses of poor people, working class or not. The South, with few worker protections, prevents its working classes from earning a living wage. It’s virtually impossible to exist on the meagre income of a single, low-wage, 40-hour-a-week job, especially since the US has no social healthcare benefits.