The South vs Social Mobility, Ctd


The popular thread continues: A reader points to this analysis of how ancient “black soil” helped make the South (Cretaceous rock units -139-65 million years old – are shown in shades of green. Older rock units are in gray, younger ones in yellow):

During the Cretaceous era, 139-65 million years ago, shallow seas covered much of the southern United States. These tropical waters were productive–giving rise to tiny marine plankton with carbonate skeletons which overtime accumulated into massive chalk formations. The chalk, both alkaline and porous, led to fertile and well-drained soils in a band, mirroring that ancient coastline and stretching across the now much drier South. This arc of rich and dark soils in Alabama has long been known as the Black Belt.

But many, including Booker T. Washington, co-opted the term to refer to the entire Southern band. Washington wrote in his 1901 autobiography, Up from Slavery, “The term was first used to designate a part of the country which was distinguished by the color of the soil. The part of the country possessing this thick, dark, and naturally rich soil …” Over time this rich soil produced an amazingly productive agricultural region, especially for cotton. In 1859 alone a harvest of over 4,000 cotton bales was not uncommon within the belt. And yet, just tens of miles north or south this harvest was rare. Of course this level of cotton production required extensive labor …


Your reader’s email providing “answers” on the South and social mobility leaves me with questions. “Where can someone right out of high school rise to a six figure income right away without working on an oil rig?” I’m not sure, but I am highly skeptical that the answer is “natural gas”. First off, a lot of these jobs being created in energy and natural gas in particular are not the sort of jobs you get right out of high school. Second, here are some salaries for available natural gas jobs in the Keystone state from a quick Google search (from

338 available jobs making $30,000+
218 making $50,000+
105 making $70,000+
39 making $90,000+
and only 13 making $110,000+

Finally, even if there are a ton of great jobs waiting for any high-school grad, this article from puts the total employment picture into perspective:

Even if shale-gas development has created 245,000 direct and indirect jobs – the number used by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, and touted by industry trade groups – that still amounts to only 4 percent of total employment in a state with 5.7 million jobs.

(As an aside, it’s also worth noting that most energy analysts, and the President of the United States, recognize that in reality natural gas will almost certainly benefit MORE from efforts to address global warming – with or without fracking – than any other energy source.)

Maybe I’m wrong, and digging something out of the ground is a better route to economic mobility than cultivating a creative skill-set that provides unique, real-world value. I remain, however, unconvinced.


I had the opportunity to reflect on your thread this morning, as I left the interstate in a torrential downpour, and instead commuted to downtown Memphis via US-51, in a route that took me through the Whitehaven suburb of Memphis, directly past Graceland. I’ve lived in the Memphis area my entire life, and I can remember the same area in the early 1980s, when it was a much whiter and more affluent area. I also have been witness to the slow decline over the past decades, and this morning spent the ride dodging flash flooding and reflecting on the white flight that has occurred in Memphis, juxtaposed against the maps showing relative social mobility.

The problem isn’t the lack of social mobility, in my mind. The problem is that the post-civil rights area resulted in the mass migration of the affluent away from those who were already destitute. In so doing, the entire economic base that supported the region shifted, and further entrenched the already stagnant economics of the minorities left behind while geographically consolidating the economic fortunes of the better off. There are abandoned factories and businesses, and crumbling schools all over this area, along with the scavenger pawn shops and dollar stores that moved in to fill some of the voids.

This, to me, is what I think of when I read about the lack of social mobility. Everything that might have contributed to mobility was simply relocated, and the skeletons left to rot.