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The South's Battered Psyche: 8 Trends of Bad Health, Gun Violence, Religious Fervor, and Poverty

The latest data show the cycle of poverty in the Deep South is holding firm. Why is this?

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Across red-state America, especially in the Deep South, recent statistics—such as these Huffington Post graphics—show that the cycle of poverty, in its many manifestations, is unchanged and holding firm. Why is this?

It’s easy to say this is how Republicans like to run states—cutting budgets, not raising the minimum wage, opposing labor unions. They let the poor and working class stew in their hardscrabble juices. Meanwhile, they distract voters by accusing liberals of waging war on the few sources of personal power in Southerners' difficult lives: their religious beliefs and owning guns. But go back several decades when segregationist Democrats ruled; for the most part, they weren’t very different from today’s Republicans.

So what is it that perpetuates decades of poverty in the Deep South? What follows are eight bundles of statistics tracking this latest cycle of poverty. Could it be that people who historically have been treated badly, who have little money in their pockets but look to the sky and pray, expect less from others—including the public and private sector? Does that explain why red-staters cling to God, gun ownership and a “leave-me-alone” ferocity? They expect politicians to defend their values and their pride and little more?       

What’s going on here isn’t entirely political, even if it is used by red-state Republicans in their personal drive for power and influence. Look at what the following statistics reveal about red-staters trapped in deep cycles of poverty. What is the thread that connects lousy governance, bad health, evangelical religion and firearms fervor?

1. Southern states have the most poor people.

Looking through the widest lense, one sees that America’s sunbelt contains the poorest states. This is not just because it costs less to live in a warmer climate. The Department of Agriculture, which measures poverty, found that every red state in a 2,500-mile stretch from Arizona to South Carolina along the southern tier had the highest poverty rates in the U.S. in 2011, between 17.9 and 22.8 percent.

From west to east, that poverty belt includes Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina. As many as one in four Southern children live in poverty, the Children’s Defense Fund reported earlier this year, compared to the national average of one in five.   

As you would expect, the vast majority of people falling under the poverty line in the poorest states do not have white faces—although there are poor whites. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation compiles state poverty rates by race. In the poorest states, whites account for 15 percent to 20 percent of the poor.

2. Deep South states have no minimum wage.

People work hard, but that doesn’t mean they’re well paid—Southern business elites and politicians like it that way. Five states have no state minumum wage, meaning that the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour and $2.13 for tipped workers is the standard. While other states have raised these floors, that’s not so for Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina. These states also are hostile to organized labor, like the entire South. The result is the 10 states with the lowest average household incomes are mostly southern. Starting at rock bottom, they are Mississippi, Arkansas, West Virginia, Alabama, Kentucky, New Mexico, Tennessee, Louisiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma.

3. Deep South has lowest economic mobility.

Politicans love to talk about the American Dream, which of course, is that hard work will result in a steady climb up the economic ladder. That promise is least likely across the South, according to the Equality of Economic Opportunity Project. It mapped economic mobility county by county across the U.S., and created this map showing that the South was where children born into poor homes were least likely to climb the economic ladder. The region’s businesses and business models overwhelmingly rely on low-wage work.