So much for giving thanks for Mississippi. As the Census Bureau reported recently, South Carolina now ranks third in the nation when it comes to poverty rate, with 19 percent of Palmetto State residents living in poverty. Since the Census Bureau began measuring the rate in 1980, South Carolina has never come in behind our Southern compatriots in Mississippi, until the most recent 2011 numbers.
So much for that streak. The state is now behind only Louisiana (21.1 percent) and New Mexico (22.2 percent).
What does that mean? For a family of four, that means living on about $23,000 or less a year. For an individual, it means a salary of no more than about $11,500 a year.
For many of us such numbers seem impossible. Live on $11,000 a year? Or less? For a fifth of South Carolinians, such numbers are a daily reality.
Depressingly, the numbers are even worse among children. Relying on census numbers, Kids Count reports that 27.5 percent of S.C. children – more than a fourth of kids in the state – are living in households with incomes below the poverty level.
That means a quarter of the state's children are growing up with lower expectations, facing futures that will include worse health care, a higher likelihood of jail time and less opportunity. Instead of wondering which college to choose, many of these children are wondering if there will be food on the table tonight. Money won't buy you happiness, but it does go a long way toward comfort.
This is a problem that needs addressing. And as the rise in South Carolina's ranking shows, it's not going away on its own. Luckily for the Strand, Horry County fares somewhat better than the state as a whole, with a poverty rate that's averaged a bit less than the state in recent years. Georgetown County, however, leans the other way, generally outpacing the state's already high poverty rate. And there's a good chance that Horry County's lower rate is skewed a bit by its large retiree population, many of whom, though not filthy rich, are at least comfortably above the poverty line. The county continues to bear the ignominious distinction of having the lowest average weekly wage ($554) among the 329 largest counties in the United States.
All of those numbers show the problem. So what's the solution? The best solution, and one reason we get so excited whenever talk of new jobs is floated, is more employment and improved employment.
One way the area has attempted that task in recent years is through the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp., which recently saw its funding cut by Horry County Council. And it has been moderately successful in attracting new businesses here. Depending on whom you talk to, the EDC has brought between 250 and 450 new jobs to the area in the past couple of years. That sounds like a lot, until you look at the unemployment numbers for recent months, which show that the slowly improving economy has each month provided 2,000-3,000 more jobs for workers than the same month last year.
That's not to say the EDC isn't helping. It’s hard task – and vitally important one – is to attract not just any new jobs but new industries to help diversify our economy. That work continues, and we're grateful for those who are working so diligently. But until it bears more fruit, the Grand Strand and South Carolina will continue to lag behind the rest of the nation in poverty.
We've already let Mississippi pass us. Let's try to keep Louisiana at bay.