South Carolina continues to neglect the I-95 corridor 

The State's Shame

I like numerical rankings. Of course, they do not tell the whole story. Just as a ballplayer's batting and fielding stats tell you nothing about his attitude and leadership in the clubhouse, a state's or county's rankings in such quality-of-life indexes as income, education, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, or violence are only part of the story. But it's a useful and important part. That's why the sports pages are filled with statistics, and census data is such a goldmine for people trying to understand what this country is about.

For years I have used this column to present an array of state rankings, most of which are less than flattering to the sovereign State of South Carolina. I have done this to demonstrate that there is something fundamentally wrong with the attitudes, the governance, and the leadership of this state. Nothing will change most of these statistics — not tax cuts, not shiny new factories from Europe and Asia, not NCAA championship sports teams, nothing — until there is a change in the way South Carolinians think about themselves and each other.

There are some new statistics out from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Population Health Institution at the University of Wisconsin. The good news is that the study does not compare us to any other states. The bad news is that South Carolina statistics can be pretty grim all by themselves.

The annual County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program breaks down each state by county to compare the rates of morbidity and mortality. There are abundant breakouts for a number of health-related factors, such as smoking and fatal car crashes. In short, the website is for healthcare professionals what Bill James' Great American Baseball Stat Book is for fans of the game. To look at the County Health Rankings map of South Carolina is to see a living picture of our state's history, as well as its modern demographics and most contentious issues.

The more urban areas of the state are home to the healthiest populations, reflecting their greater medical, educational, and public health resources. Moving away from the cities, the countryside becomes deadly, with up to four times the morbidity and mortality levels as in the cities and suburbs.

Particularly telling is the swath of counties running from the North Carolina border in the Pee Dee region of the state down to the Georgia border in the southern corner. Some people call it the I-95 corridor, but it has another name: the Corridor of Shame.

These are some of the poorest counties in the U.S. — majority black and culturally and economically cut off from the rest of the country and the future. They reflect the history of the region, when slaves planted and harvested vast tracts there. With the collapse of plantation agriculture, the local economy collapsed. Because it was below the fall line, it was not suitable for early industrialization. There was nothing there to attract tourism. And so the region has languished, a Third World country in our midst.

The name, Corridor of Shame, refers to the public schools there. They are among the worst in the nation. The schools there are literally falling down with age, decrepitude, and the indifference of the Republican-led, white-majority government in Columbia. The 2006 documentary film Corridor of Shame drew nationwide attention to the problem of the schools, and Sen. Barack Obama visited the then-111-year-old J.V. Martin Middle School in Dillon County during his quest for the White House in 2008. Neither the film nor the president did much good for the schools.

And now the County Health Rankings map shows us what we should already know. People are dying there faster than elsewhere in the state. Disease is endemic to the region, and it is part of the pathological cycle of poverty, ignorance, and despair. Sick people cannot work and do not want to go to school.

In East Africa right now, there is another wave of famine gripping the land. But like the previous famines, it is caused not by lack of food but by lack of distribution — usually abetted by war. In other words, famine is man-made.

The same can be said for the Corridor of Shame and all the pathologies that infest it. It will take a number of things to break the ancient cycle that grips the region, but the most important is money. In 2010, Gov. Mark Sanford rejected $700 million in federal stimulus funds bound for this state to make a political point and to boost his White House ambitions. He accomplished neither, but part of his legacy will be the Corridor of Shame, which still runs across the state like an angry scar.

You can see that scar in the County Health Rankings map.

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