In between the statistical data, the dour outlook for state budgets, and the declaration that the longest recession since World War II is at least technically over, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke talked Monday of how the South has come a long way in educating its residents and transforming its economy.
Bernanke could speak with a degree of authority on the topic, having attended public schools in tiny Dillon, where he also worked for three summers at the famous South of the Border tourist attraction.
"When I attended public schools in South Carolina in the 1960s, measures of per-pupil spending, years of schooling, and student achievement in the South lagged significantly behind other parts of the country," the Fed chief said in a speech at the Southern Legislative Conference in Charleston. "Since then, those indicators have changed, very much for the better."
Bernanke spent almost his entire childhood in the Pee Dee, where his grandfather settled in the 1940s. The future Ivy League-trained economist graduated in 1971 from Dillon High School, where he was valedictorian and taught himself calculus. He also won a statewide spelling bee.
Monday's speech was Bernanke's first public appearance in Charleston since taking the reins of the central bank in 2006. He urged lawmakers in the audience to take the long view and to keep pushing to grow their economies, despite short-term budget shortfalls.
"Surely, adequate transportation networks and the like are necessary for economic growth," he said. "But for sustained economic development, investment in people -- in their knowledge and skills -- is even more important. No economy can succeed without a high-quality workforce, particularly in an age of globalization and technical change. I think this is a lesson that the South, as a region, has learned quite well."
He said high school completion rates "have gradually converged to the national average" and that Southern universities have gained national and international prominence. Also, the region now houses some leading innovation hubs, such as North Carolina's Research Triangle Park area.
"Doubtless, investment in education and training has been a key source of the remarkable economic gains that the South has achieved over the past 50 years or so," he said.
He stressed the importance of early childhood education programs as an example, saying preschool programs for disadvantaged children have been shown to increase high school graduation rates.
"Because high school graduates have higher earnings, pay more taxes, and are less likely to need to use public health programs, such investments can pay off even from the narrow perspective of state budgets," he said.
In assessing the state of the broader economy, Bernanke said the recession is "technically" over but that the country is still in rough shape, largely because of stubbornly high unemployment, a glut of foreclosed homes and depleted savings.
"The economy is growing now, so it's no longer technically in a recession. But clearly we're far from being in a normal situation ... where people can find work and earn the incomes they need to support their families," Bernanke said.
The bulk of his prepared remarks focused on the challenges facing cash-poor state and local governments, which have been reducing spending and trimming payrolls in response to the downturn. Bernanke cited those cuts as one of factors behind the "sluggishness of the national recovery."
Bernanke did not discuss interest rates.
But during a brief question-and-answer session, he took aim at critics of the government's handling of the global financial crisis, who have said the undertaking was more about Wall Street than Main Street. Bernanke defended the steps the Fed and other public agencies took worldwide as "very, very difficult" but "absolutely necessary."
"Suppose you had a nuclear plant across the river from a major city, and it was about have a global meltdown, and the government prevented that power plant from exploding. And people on the other side of the river said, 'Well, you just did that to help the shareholders.' That's the kind reaction of we get," he said.
Bernanke also was asked to revisit his version of the events that transpired in Washington amid the near-collapse of the world financial system around September 2008.
"Well, how much time you got?" he responded.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.