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First in Football, First in Poverty

First in Football, First in Poverty

It used to be said about Washington and its baseball team the Senators: first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League. These days, in the American South, we’re often first in college football and first, or near-first, in poverty, too.

So what does the accompanying chart say about the American South? It says that when Southerners really commit themselves to an enterprise, they can succeed. At universities, both public and private, Southerners commit the resources necessary to excel in intercollegiate athletics, especially football. Of the teams that have won the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) since its creation in 1998, only Ohio State in 2002 and University of Southern California in 2004 are from outside the South.

And yet, as a legacy of their economic and social history, states of the American South rank among the poorest in the land. Even as the South went through its own gilded age of leading the nation in population and jobs growth in the last quarter of the twentieth century, it remained a region with communities of persistent poverty. After a period of declining poverty rates, the recent recession kicked poverty in the South back up to the level of the early 1980s. Southerners, of course, are not going to give up their passion for football—but the issue is whether they can make the same kind of community commitment to alleviating poverty as they do to football.

*States are ranked from highest to lowest, so that Mississippi at a 22.6% poverty rate ranks as the highest in the nation.

Source: 2011 American Community Survey (