Friday, April 2, 2010

Charlotte's Web of Financial Troubles

This morning, NPR ran a story about the financial woes of Charlotte, NC, the longtime pinnacle of the "New South" ideal... and a city experiencing some pretty serious economic troubles right about now. On a certain level, of course, so are we all, but Charlotte is particularly hard hit because it based so much of its economy upon continued growth in the banking and financial services sectors. One quotation from the county budget director struck me as especially poignant: "We cannot afford the government that we have. We cannot afford the services that we have. The tax base isn't there." The story discussed how social services, schools, libraries, and so on may have to significantly curtail their services--in a city where unemployment has risen from 4.5 to almost 13 percent in the past three years.

The "New South" developed in the decades following World War II as regional boosters attempted to move beyond magnolia-tinged stereotypes and promote the economic development of the entire region. States emphasized their favorable business tax climates and longtime opposition to union power. The pages of magazines like U.S. News and World Report were peppered in the 1950s and 1960s with advertisements touting these attributes and placed by state development commissions. Viable air conditioning technology made the South a more pleasant place to live (and forge economic enterprises) year-round. Enthusiastic natives and a growing population of regional transplants minimized the stresses of the desegregation movement and attempted to forge coalitions that could erase the most blatant legacies of Jim Crow whilst preserving some of segregation's aims in more politically-palatable forms. (Matthew Lassiter's The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South [2006] does a wonderful job of explicating battles over school desegregation and busing in Charlotte itself, where forces for desegregation were actually more successful than in many other localities... for a time, anyway.)

Now, however, the boom times are over, at least for the present. Those years of a favorable business climate were able to stimulate immense growth--but they also created a society dependent upon continued growth to fund local and regional government. A solid foundation was secondary. As another interviewee on the program, an everyday citizen, commented, he thought Charlotte would always continue to grow. What happens when it doesn't? Economies rise and fall; people are not perfect and they do not make perfect decisions. Building a region on the assumption that growth is inexorable is a dangerous proposition. Unfortunately, Charlotte citizens (and many others around the nation) may now be the ones to suffer the consequences.

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