Walter Edgar, the state's preeminent historian, leads a visitor to a book-encased office at his home in the upscale Shandon section of Columbia and sits at his desk to ponder a question:
Why can't South Carolina shake the deep disparities — poverty, sickness and ignorance — that have plagued it for centuries?
Edgar shakes his head side to side and his voice trails off as he whispers, “I don't know.”
Then he reels off a list of persistent attitudes that contribute to the disparities: Distrust of government. Fierce individualism. Aversion to helping blacks. Aversion to helping the poor. Belief that you are responsible for your own family. A conviction that it's your fault if you are poor.
But the attitude that may be most responsible for perpetuating the state's disparities is rejection of public education, Edgar says. “I've read every inaugural address by every governor since 1900, and everyone has said, 'We have to do something about education.' So why are we still where we are?”
Political, educational, governmental and civic leaders from across the state echoed that sentiment in interviews with The Post and Courier during the past seven months. They say education serves as the main route for the state to escape its two other major problems of poverty and poor health.
The statistics offer a sobering view of South Carolina:
In public school education, numerous studies consistently rank the state at or near the bottom when compared with other states. For example, in math and science, a recent study by the American Institute of Physics ranked the state 40th. And the Republican-leaning American Legislative Exchange Council 2011 “Report Card on American Education” rated South Carolina's performance on improving reading and math among low-income children as 50th in the nation.
In health, the state dropped from 45th in the nation to 46th in the 2012 report “America's Health Rankings” by the United Health Foundation.
In economic opportunity, the state continues to struggle with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. In December, the latest data available, the state's 8.4 percent unemployment ranked 11th highest in the nation. And in many areas of the state, one out of every five residents lives in poverty.
Keith Waring, a Charleston City Council member and West Ashley financial adviser, says, “We know the problem. We just don't have the political will to fix it.”
That failure has cost the state dearly, he says. “You pay for education once. You pay for ignorance for a lifetime. South Carolina has been paying for ignorance over and over again.”
Edgar cites some telling statistics from history that illustrate this failure:
During World War II, when the country drafted every man it could, one out of three of South Carolina's eligible whites and one out of two eligible blacks were rejected because of illiteracy or poor health.
During the Korean War, almost two out of three draft-eligible South Carolinians were rejected because of illiteracy or bad health. And, Edgar says, it can't be explained away by those who think the state is no different from the rest of the South, because the rejection rate for the rest of the South was about half of South Carolina's.
As the Vietnam War loomed in the early 1960s, South Carolina's draft-rejection rate stood as the highest among all states.
The draft no longer exists, but the core problems remain, Edgar says.
He lays much of the blame on the state's refusal to raise taxes and spend money to create organized, effectively staffed, systematic programs to tackle the underlying problems that drive disparity.
“No new taxes: How can you get anything done? You cannot have something for nothing,” Edgar says.
From slavery to Jim Crow
The roots of South Carolina's disparities run deep in the state's history of racism, classism, individualism and lack of economic diversity, Edgar says. And they remain today, perpetuated by lingering attitudes and by a political and governmental system based on a state constitution adopted in 1895 that was promoted by Gov. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a virulent racist, who served from 1890 to 1894.
That constitution, changed many times but still in effect, stripped blacks of the voting rights won after the Civil War and eliminated the equal-opportunity aspects of the 1868 Reconstruction constitution, including the right to public education “without regard to race or color.”
Tillman's constitution set the stage for the Jim Crow laws, institutionalized racial segregation that dominated the state into the 1970s.
The constitution also removed most local control from counties and placed power in the hands of the legislative delegation, especially the county senator, Edgar says. “Everybody had their little fiefdom.”
Department of Administration
Power became centralized in the Legislature through creation of a series of agencies and commissions appointed by key legislators. The legacy can be seen still in the powerful state boards that control everything from the state budget to highway construction.
In the early 1990s, Gov. Carroll Campbell managed to snatch some power from the Legislature and win passage of a limited-cabinet form of government.
Despite those gains for the governor's office, the state remains legislatively controlled.
Bobby Harrell, the speaker of the House, says he favors returning more executive power to the governor. He points out that the House has approved creation of a Department of Administration to take over much of the budget and control functions previously dominated by the Legislature. The Senate killed the bill again last year, but Harrell says it will be a priority once more this year for the House.
Just this past week, the Senate passed its version of a bill to create a Department of Administration. If the two legislative houses can agree on one version, the state will have taken a substantial step toward empowering the governor's office.
Despite the Legislature's many differences with Gov. Nikki Haley and her predecessor, Mark Sanford, Harrell says he believes the long-range improvement of state government would be enhanced by letting the executive branch be the executive branch.
An empowered executive branch is one step “to get South Carolina off the bottom of so many lists you do not want to be on the bottom of,” Harrell says.
For now, even the state's judges, including Supreme Court justices, remain beholden to the Legislature. It picks nominees and elects the winners to limited terms in office. If the legislators don't like the rulings judges make, they can vote them out after their term.
Janet G. Hudson, a USC history professor, says fear that blacks might regain some of the power they enjoyed during Reconstruction after the Civil War underscored state social and political policies through most of the 20th century.
“South Carolina was a black majority state until the 1920s. This is not to blame black people, but rather to point out that the strategies used by those in power was a strategy to thwart change,” she says.
And that helped perpetuate many of the disparities in education, economic opportunity and health care that linger, she says.
Hudson, the author of “Entangled by White Supremacy: Reform in World War I-Era South Carolina,” says the concentration of power in the Legislature has been exacerbated in recent decades by the fact that legislators overwhelmingly get elected from safe districts that they created through gerrymandering.
Legislators from those districts don't need to have “any concern or sensitivity to the needs of those who don't elect them, nor any need to appeal to them at election time,” Hudson says. “This together with a political system dominated by one party with weak opposition doesn't provide any motivation or incentives for legislative compromises.”
'Islands of excellence'
The offices of the Palmetto Project sit tucked away behind boutique shops and restaurants along Mount Pleasant's Coleman Boulevard. It seems an unlikely spot for an organization dedicated to finding innovative solutions to South Carolina's many social and economic challenges.
Steve Skardon serves as executive director of the nonprofit, which since 1984 has participated in some 200 projects designed to improve everything from school readiness to voter turnout.
Skardon voices particular pride at a childhood immunization program the organization worked on in cooperation with another nonprofit and the state health department.
That effort began in 1993 and turned South Carolina from one of the bottom-dwelling states in childhood immunization to the nation's leader, even earning the attention of President Bill Clinton in a 1994 Rose Garden news conference.
The project ended in 2002 when the state cut funding to its 13 health districts. That ended their ability to offer evening and Saturday hours for parents who couldn't get off work to take their children in for shots, Skardon says.
Now, more than a dozen states show better immunization rates, according to Kids Count, a nationwide child advocacy organization.
Some of the Palmetto Project's efforts have had lasting effects and have been replicated in other states. Many were designed to end after a certain period, but others shared the fate of the vaccination effort and ran out of steam or support.
The same can be said for numerous efforts by other nonprofits, churches or organizations to improve health, education and job opportunities across the state, Skardon says.
They show success but lack staying power because money runs out or interests change. That's especially true of statewide efforts, such as the immunization project. Local efforts tend to be more lasting.
To Skardon, the missing element is state government. Without state support, it's difficult to maintain systematic efforts to tackle the huge problems of lacking education, health care and economic opportunity, he says.
Skardon suspects that's because South Carolinians historically have distrusted things outside of their individual control. That translates to, “We don't believe the state should be doing anything the individual should be doing.”
Consequently, Skardon says, “We have islands of excellence in a sea of failure.”