Editor’s note: Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome distinguished professor of history and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. Daniel P. Gitterman is an associate professor of public policy and a senior fellow at the Global Research Institute.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — About 18 months ago, UNC-Chapel Hill’s newly established Global Research Institute initiated a program of work to revisit the central themes of two important 1986 studies – “Halfway Home” and “Shadows in the Sunbelt” – to assess how these analyses held up after 25 years and to lay out some recommendations regarding a way forward for the region.

One of those, whose full title was “Halfway Home and a Long Way to Go,” was a major policy report on the state of the region from the North Carolina-based Southern Growth Policies Board. The board hoped to mobilize support for public policies and public-private partnerships that would increase per capita income and reduce poverty and unemployment for Southerners.

A few months earlier, the Chapel Hill-based MDC had issued an influential report of its own: “Shadows in the Sunbelt.”

These two reports transformed the way in which both policymakers and the general public viewed the Sunbelt. Although each acknowledged the economic and social progress the South had made in the postwar era – progress that allowed the once-downtrodden region to converge steadily upon national economic norms – both reports devoted most of their attention to lingering problems in the region and to the difficult challenges that remained.

Many of the problems flagged in these reports were quite similar: the region’s difficulty in promoting internal economic growth; job losses in low-skill, low-wage manufacturing; deficiencies in human capital, particularly relating to educational attainment and skill acquisition; and a dearth of innovation. And, according to both reports, many of the region’s most severe problems were “legacy” problems related to and often growing out of the way the region had developed over previous centuries.

Now, the Global Research Institute has released “A Way Forward: Building a Globally Competitive South” – a nonpartisan report consisting of about 40 accessible policy-oriented essays. A few themes appear so frequently that they are worth airing to a constituency wider than the policy world alone.

The main one is that, despite the momentous changes in the region since 1986 – among them vastly increased immigration, rapid technological change, and accelerating globalization – the problems we in the South confront today, alas, are not all that different than was the case in the mid-1980s.

Three themes in particular appear over and over again in “A Way Forward.” First and foremost is the overarching importance of investment, or, rather, smart investment, in human capital, especially in learning and skill acquisition.

Investment of this sort should not be equated with, much less reduced to, calls for “more schooling.” The region’s labor force, which is expensive in world terms and not very skilled, needs upgrading. Some of this upgrading will occur through formal schooling, but also in apprenticeship programs and on job sites.

Second, for the South to generate self-sustained growth and development, entrepreneurship and innovation will have to play stronger roles in the region’s economy. For many years the region relied heavily upon “runaway shops,” mature (if not declining) industries and imported talent. Although we have created some impressive technology and financial clusters of our own since then, these clusters are incapable of generating a sufficient number of middle-class jobs for our fast-growing state.

In the future, we will have to develop more industries that have the capacity to do so and nurture the regional talent adequately to support them.

Third, in order to enhance the region’s human capital and foster entrepreneurship and innovation, we will have to find ways to overcome the remaining historical constraints that have long impeded the South’s progress, particularly in rural areas and in inner cities,  where the region’s “shadows” are most marked.

The most prominent of these constraints, not surprisingly, are related to and, in fact, grow out of the economic and social inequities begat by racial slavery centuries ago.In order to address these three themes successfully, our leaders must find a way to forge a bipartisan, pro-growth economic agenda and, in order to implement it, embrace creative public-private partnerships of various kinds. Unless they do, the way forward will likely lead to a dead end.

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