It is without coincidence that Southern states have the highest level of poverty, the lowest level of education, the most political corruption and the least access to food. The rest of the US seems to look down on us, making the Southern stereotype a trashy, idiotic, hateful slob of a bigot. With recent conflicts over the defense of Confederate monuments, the Southern identity is being scrutinized, and with it I believe comes the opportunity to reinvent what it means to be a Southerner.
I want to begin by saying that I love North Carolina. There’s nothing finer than some good barbecue, listening to bluegrass and enjoying a quiet night in the country. That being said, I have to say that I have always been ashamed of my identity as a Southerner. Whenever I would visit Northern states, I felt I had to hide the fact of where I was born or be assumed to be a stupid bigot. Unfortunately, there’s a very large amount of truth to that stereotype.
To live in a Southern state is to live in contradiction. We cherish our freedoms but our governments are rife with corruption. Democracy in North Carolina is under criticism thanks to gerrymandering. We live near farms but our towns are rampant with food deserts. Eight of the top ten most obese states are Southern states. How can we claim to love our neighbors, but hate groups like the KKK openly march every year? The South is infamous for its subpar education systems in the union and for it we deal with the stereotype of being morons. While it is the absolute truth that Southerners are not born any less intelligent than a Northerner, we are put at a drastic disadvantage thanks to those who teach us- or more accurately, those who don’t.
It all comes down to a lack of government spending. While there are several people around who hear the word “taxation” and have heart palpitations, the fact of the matter is that Northern states succeed because of how much money local governments get from taxes. Those taxes pay for grocery stores so people have access to food, and schools so children grow up learning to think critically. Taxes come from the populace and with them the government gives back programs that make life easier for everyone.
Somehow we’ve got it into our heads that the government shouldn’t be the one to take responsibility for the needs of the populace, and that it’s every man for himself. While that thought process may be worthy of philosophical debate, if one simply looks at which states are prospering, they will likely not find much of that southern pride leading the nation.
Unfortunately, the idea that Southern states need only rely more on taxation is very idealistic. The reason our governments cannot seem to take care of their people and are heavily reliant on federal aid is because we are sparsely populated. Population centers like New York City have almost as many people as the entire state of North Carolina, thus bringing in a significantly larger amount of taxes. They are able to sustain all their infrastructure, education and healthcare all on their own.
Being in the South, people tend to live in much smaller towns, farther apart from each other and pay generally lower tax rates than Northerners. While fixing our broken education system would help with poverty and potentially help with our problem of rampant bigotry, it can’t really be done if we can’t afford it. We can’t build more grocery stores because there aren’t enough population centers for them to go in. We can’t build better hospitals because we can’t afford them. None of these problems are fixed because of government corruption, and we can’t fix our corrupt governments because people are too busy trying to feed their families on minimum wage- and thus is the self-sustaining cycle.
I’m not claiming to know how to fix the problems that keep the South impoverished. I think all our problems, including economic ones, are caused by a complex web of interrelated influences that are so dizzyingly entangled that to fully understand them would take years of intense research. However I think we can start by recognizing that something is deeply wrong with this place we call home.
It has nothing to do with the way people are born or which side of the political aisle one finds themselves on. It has to do with a system that needs to be fixed on a fundamental level, and by not blindly romanticizing our home. Our identity as the southern part of the U.S. needs to change. We have to recognize ourselves as a part of the country that needs fixing. Only once we recognize that we have a problem can we take steps to fix it.