Although Alabama has tremendous culture, beautiful landscapes, wonderful people, and a state pride that is hard to match, it also has an inferior economic base, a politics that is often marred by the exploitation of deep racial and class divisions, and too often a willingness to accept the shit end of the stick in business deals that results in low-paying jobs, extractive use of land, and environmentally damaging consequences. Though I am not a sociologist or politician, I do have a few ideas from the experiences that I do have.
How do we start fixing this? At the bottom. The foundations have to be sured up. Wages have to be increased, and local education systems have to be improved. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the poorer and more uneducated a group people are, the more apt they are to be exploited, the more apt they are suffer from social ills like drug and alcohol abuse, and the more apt they are to perpetuate this cycle of poverty.
Wages have to come first. On the US Census web site’s Quick Facts pages, the most recent data available for per capita income is 1999 and the most recent data for persons living in poverty is 2008; the figures tell a hard tale. In Alabama, our per capita income is 83% of the national average, with 15.9% of people living in poverty, as opposed the national average of 13.8%. When wages come up, people can improve their own situations immediately, and in ways they see fit, without waiting for generational change through the education process. With more money in their pockets, low-income and working-class people can fix that leaky roof or that rusty plumbing. With money in their pockets, more working people can have dependable transportation that will open up their job possibilities. When people can improve their own lives, without handouts or government programs, they can have the peace of mind to engage the greater problems in their lives. And with higher wages, come higher tax revenues that can be used for school systems.
If more people have more income, then two types of tax revenues increase: income tax and sales tax. The answer in this lies in raising the income levels of low-wage earners, not in raising the wages of middle- and upper-income earners. People who earn higher wages, whose basic needs are more than covered, whose living facilities are adequate and safe, are more apt to save money, to put it in the bank or to invest it. People without adequate resources and facilities — falling down houses, broken down cars, badly worn-out clothes, not enough food — are going to spend every dime of that extra money to get their lives up to a better standard.
Increased wages and consequent increased spending will increase the tax base without raising tax rates, which middle-class and wealthy people usually vote against. With a better tax base, public schools can be improved. New teachers can be hired to decrease class sizes. New schools can be built to decrease the number of kids who have long bus rides every day. New resources, like computers and library books, can improve student learning. The key to this is not spending increased tax revenue on more police officers and prisons, but on more teachers and schools.
And improved education should not be confined to the young. Existing institutions, like public libraries, can provide much needed resources for adults and children alike. Literacy classes, improved infrastructure to provide internet access in rural areas, and community organizing to ensure access to good and true information about local issues can also improve the lives of people in the South. Public libraries and community centers are excellent places for those things to occur.
That herculean task – improving wages for low-income and working-class people – would be a start. Alabama doesn’t need more Wal-Marts or access to more TV channels. That isn’t progress. The Alabamians who are in the short end of the statistics listed above need systemic improvements that lift them and their children up.