Southeastern states such as Georgia have enjoyed an unprecedented economic expansion in the past two decades, but that new prosperity has not been spread evenly.
Even though federal officials announced last month that the nation's poverty rate had reached its lowest level since 1979, there's still plenty of poverty in the Southeast - much of it in a peculiar swath called the "Black Belt," according to University of Georgia demographer Doug Bachtel, one of a team of researchers trying to generate government and foundation support for a large-scale attack on the region's problems.
Although the term Black Belt has grown offensive to some, Mr. Bachtel admits, the region has been called that for decades because of the high percent of blacks living in the area - 40 percent of the region's 25 million people.
The broad band of 623 counties describes a crescent from Virginia to Texas, cutting through the heart of Georgia.
Mr. Bachtel said the region's problems have roots two centuries old in some of the grimmer parts of Southern history - slavery and cotton plantations.
The Black Belt was once also known as the Cotton Belt, the part of the South where cotton agriculture thrived and slaves were most numerous, he explained.
For the most part, the economic boom that's lifted the rest of the South in the past two decades has bypassed the Black Belt, said Mr. Bachtel, a faculty member in the university's College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Mr. Bachtel is working with several researchers in hopes of generating a multistate, multimillion-dollar attack on the region's complex health, poverty and education woes.
The researchers are also gearing up for an extensive analysis of the region when information becomes available from the 2000 Census. But they don't expect to see a lot of change from the high poverty rates and other problems revealed by the 1990 census numbers, said Ron Wimberley, a North Carolina State University sociologist who's also been doing Black Belt research and is one of the researchers working with Mr. Bachtel.
To tackle the ingrained problems of the Black Belt, the researchers first would like to get a grant of about $250,000 to plan a larger effort that would cost - to begin with - $7 million to $8 million, Mr. Bachtel said.
But in years of trying, they've had little luck.
"Sure (it's frustrating)," said Libby Morris, a faculty member at University of Georgia's Institute of Higher Education. "We all want to plug into issues that are fun and entertaining, but it's harder to look at when our communities are failing, and to examine our weaknesses."
In some ways the belt is like a different, and ignored, country, Mr. Bachtel said.
"It is one of the most rural areas of the United States, and also has some of the nation's most intractable long-term human and economic development problems," he said.
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