Tech Policy

An Introduction to the Future of Work in the Black Rural South

The Joint Center’s report, An Introduction to the Future of Work in the Black Rural South, is the first in a series of reports about Black Rural South and the future of work. We define the Black Rural South as 156 counties designated as rural by the USDA and have populations that are at least 35 percent African American.

Click on the following for the…

49-page full report

4-page infographic

Key Points:

  • The Black Rural South Was an Engine of U.S. Economic Growth. For the first six decades of the 1800s, cotton produced mostly by enslaved labor in the Black Rural South represented over half of American exports, and facilitated the development of several industries in other regions—textile factories, banks, insurance companies, and shipping lines. By the 1860s, the South was producing 75 percent of the world’s cotton, and the lower Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires than anywhere else in the United States.
  • Automation and Low-Cost Black Labor Shaped the Black Rural South. The cotton gin’s automation of cotton seed removal eliminated the need for enslaved persons to perform this task, but triggered an explosive growth in the demand for raw cotton and the rapid spread of slavery. After the Civil War a Jim Crow caste system evolved that maintained a large pool of low-cost Black labor until cotton farming was automated in the 1950s and 1960. An abundant supply of low-cost unorganized Black labor and low taxes attracted manufacturing to the Black Rural South, but employment in the industry has declined by 40 percent in recent years due to automation and outsourcing.
  • Deep Racial Inequality Persists in the Black Rural South. While the Black Rural South has higher unemployment and childhood poverty rates and lower earnings than rural areas outside of the South and the nation as a whole, much of this stems from racial inequality. For example, in the Black Rural South 19 percent of white children live in poverty compared to 52 percent of Black children. On average, whites in the Black Rural South enjoy greater prosperity than whites in the “white Rural South” (Southern rural counties over 90 percent white).
  • Almost a Quarter of Jobs in the Black Rural South Could Be Displaced by Automation by 2030. Over half of all private sector workers in the Black Rural South are employed in the six industries with the highest potential for automation (compared to only a third of private sector workers in the national population). The Joint Center also analyzed county-level data compiled by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. Based on the Joint Center’s analysis of this data, 53 percent of the jobs in the Black Rural South are in six industries with high potential for automation, and 24.2 percent of jobs in the Black Rural South could be displaced by automation by 2030.
  • Absent Intervention, Fewer New Jobs Will Be Created in the Black Rural South. Between 2001 and 2017 job growth was 31.5 percent for Southern metro areas, 21.4 percent nationally, 6.8 percent for non-South rural areas, and negative 0.4 percent for the Black Rural South. Absent concerted intervention, we assume these trends will continue, with metro areas enjoying significant growth, and the Black Rural South experiencing significant job loss. While county-level data projections indicate job growth between 2017-2030 ranging from 6 percent to 17 percent for various metro areas, 1 percent for healthier rural areas, and negative 3 percent for typical distressed rural areas, the Joint Center’s analysis of the county-level data projects negative 9 percent job growth in the Black Rural South.
  • The Costs of Displacement Are Higher for Workers in the Black Rural South. The Black Rural South has a slightly higher projected rate of displacement from automation (24.2 percent) than the U.S. as a whole (23 percent), but the real danger is the combination of displacement with high negative job growth in the Black Rural South. Many displaced workers in metro areas with high positive job growth could have a relatively easy time securing replacement employment. By comparison, the costs of displacement could be much higher in the Black Rural South because displaced workers could have a much more difficult time securing replacement employment if fewer open jobs exist in the region. The combination of displacement and negative job growth in the Black Rural South could increase already high unemployment and poverty rates, and further reduce already low earnings and workforce participation rates.
  • Policymakers and Private Sector Leaders Can Implement Solutions. Sustained prosperity requires innovation, deeper investments in people, and solutions tailored to the unique structural challenges that confront the Black Rural South. Forthcoming Joint Center research will propose solutions for federal policymakers, the private sector, and local leaders, such as a Black Belt Commission and targeted investments in broadband, HBCUs, education, skills, remote learning and remote work, and entrepreneurship in the Black Rural South.

The report was written by Harin Contractor and Spencer Overton.

Spencer’s op-ed on this report can be found here.

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Originally published on December 24, 2019.