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Report: Black Belt lags in business, GDP growth and personal income

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center (EPC) wrapped up its weeks-long series of briefs examining challenges to the Black Belt Monday by looking into manufacturing in the area.

The EPC’s most recent brief is the last in its series, which previously examined declining population and school enrollment numbers in the area, as well as access to healthcare and broadband internet, pre-kindergarten programs, unemployment and labor force participation and a solid definition of the region.

Like previous briefs, the latest found that the Black Belt is lagging the state in most metrics.

The EPC study found that only four counties in Alabama’s Black Belt are above the statewide average of 22.4 businesses per 1,000 residents, while eight – Bullock, Greene, Lowndes, Marion, Perry, Pickens, Russell and Washington counties –  were at or below 15 businesses per 1,000 residents.

In Dallas County, there are roughly 30 businesses per 1,000 residents.

“With fewer businesses per 1,000 residents, it is no surprise the region has experienced high unemployment over the past several decades,” the EPC report stated.

The report also took a per capita look at Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the measure of the market value of the goods and services produced in a given area, for counties across Alabama and found that only three Black Belt counties – Montgomery, Washington and Choctaw counties – were above the state average of $45,348.

For its part, Dallas County came in at roughly $35,000 GDP per 1,000 residents.

The study also took a look at personal income across the state and found that only one Black Belt county – Montgomery County – was above the state average of $43,229.

Further, 10 of the 14 counties with the lowest personal income per capita – Bullock, Perry, Sumter, Wilcox, Greene, Pickens, Conecuh, Russell, Macon and Escambia – are located in the Black Belt.

According to the report, average personal income in Dallas County was about $35,000.

The EPC’s report noted that the most recent report should be taken in tandem with previous reports.

“In prior works in this series, we documented how the Black Belt’s declining population in turn meant lower elementary and secondary school enrollments, which in turn lead to challenges related to economies of scale for rural, small high school to offer high-cost technology-rich curricula,” the report stated. “We also documented ow unemployment rates in the 24 Black Belt counties are well above the state average and how the labor force participation rates are roughly 20 points below.”

The report recommends robust workforce training and lifelong learning systems to retrain and retain top-notch workers.

The report notes a number of inspired workforce actions taken under Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey who, since taking office in 2017, has led the state to be among the best for improved labor force participation rates.

Ivey did this through a series of actions, most notably a four-bill package that created the Alabama Office of Apprenticeships (AOA) and took other steps to train, expand and retain workers.

One way that EPC Director Stephen Katsinas noted that the Black Belt might improve is by putting increased focus on “periphery” manufacturing, those operations housed just beyond the Black Belt but reasonably accessible to residents of the region.

The report included two maps from the Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL), which show that “few advanced and automotive manufacturing industries” are located in the Black Belt – Montgomery County, which houses Hyundai, being the biggest exception – but noted that “the need to build on existing strengths” offers the option for lawmakers to target second and third tier suppliers to set up shop in the Black Belt,  as well as establish and strengthen training programs, to make positive changes for the region.

“There can be no doubt that a comprehensive approach is the only one that will work and all of the wagons must be hitched and headed in the right direction,” the report stated in closing.