Phil Noble | South Carolina’s lost decade

Ten years is a long time, especially in the digital age. A preschool child can grow into a strapping teenager; a tech company can go from startup to a global power; and a new idea can take root and begin to change a culture.

In ten years, a state can build a strong reputation as dynamic and progressive – or it can stagnate and even slide to the point of becoming an object of national ridicule.

Unfortunately, the latter is what has happened to South Carolina.

Our state has a lot going for it, and in many ways we are making good progress. But in the critical areas of economic growth, job creation and increasing incomes, we are sadly lagging behind. Perhaps most damaging is the growing perception that our state is a joke – one observer dubbed us the “nation’s whoopee cushion.”

The truth is this economic stagnation and national derision over the last 10 to 12 years has been presided over by two Republican politicians, Governors Sanford and Haley, who seem to care more about personal political ambitions than they do about the well-being of our state. This is a pretty strong charge, but the evidence is clear.

First the economic numbers. In 1999, according to US Census Department figures, South Carolina’s median household income was $37,802 or 88 percent of the national average of $41,984. By 2010, the national average had grown to $51,914, and we fell further behind with $43,939 or only 84 percent of the national average. After adjusting for inflation, our median household income actually declined by 5.4 percent – in real terms, the average family is worse off than they were 10 years ago.

And as bad as these statistics are for the average household, the numbers are much worse for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. In 1994, 16 percent of the state was living in poverty, but things improved such that by 2000, this number was only 13 percent. Sadly, since then we have been going in the wrong direction and today 18 percent of our fellow South Carolinians are in poverty. Further, a recent Pew Study ranked South Carolina as among the three worst states in “economic mobility” – the conditions needed for people to pull themselves out of poverty.

During this period we did have good population growth. So surely the number of jobs in our state increased, even if our income went down, right? Wrong. Our population grew at 15.3 percent over the 10-year period but the number of private sector jobs actually decreased by 5 percent. Our monthly unemployment numbers consistently rank in the top tier.

And the most recent economic numbers are no better. Last year our state’s gross domestic product grew by only 1.2 percent, down a full point from the previous year, even as our neighbors were moving in the other direction, with North Carolina at 1.8 percent and Georgia at 1.7 percent.

Beyond the numbers, what of our state’s image, and the national perception of who we are? If you don’t think we have a serious image problem, just ask anyone who travels outside of our state on business what kind of reaction they get when people learn they are from South Carolina.

Admittedly, Haley’s ethical and political problems do not rise to the level of Sanford’s global headlines, but they have distracted her and the state from dealing with the basic issues we face, and prevented us from really moving forward with any new bold initiatives.

Moreover, Sanford and Haley also share a near obsession with their once and future national ambitions. It’s hard to pay much attention to South Carolina’s problems when all of your time is focused on Fox News appearances and traveling to out-of-state fundraising events.

Beyond the economic and image issues, it is the cumulative, long-term effect of their joint failure to do anything about the fundamental problems that we face that has resulted in our “lost decade.” The need for basic government restructuring has been clear since the days of Gov. Carroll Campbell; tax reform in general and specifically sales tax reform has been totally corrupted by special interest groups; we lead the nation in cuts in state funding for education – both K-12 as well as higher education. And the list goes on and on.

And this inaction cannot be blamed on the Democratic obstruction. For all of the last 10 years, there has been Republican control of both the state House and Senate, a virtual lock on most every constitutional office and five of the six Congressional seats.

Beyond the failures of these strictly governmental problems, over the past 10 years there has been a total lack of leadership in other areas of the life of our state. Where is the new Spoleto Festival? Where are the innovative public-private partnerships like ICar in Greenville? Where is the new visionary rural development initiative with local communities to lift huge regions of our state out of poverty?

Sadly, none of these happened in the “lost decade.”

In the words of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”

Contact Noble, a Charleston businessman and president of the S.C. New Democrats at phil@scnewdemocrats.org.