Despite the significant increase in South Carolina’s per capita income over the decades since 1940 (and those gains were real and generated a more vigorous consumer economy), the Palmetto state’s standing among states remained in the bottom ten of among fifty. In 2021, despite the state’s aggressive and sustained development efforts, SC ranked 43th in per capita income in the nation, ahead only of West Virginia, New Mexico, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Idaho, and Arkansas. Although the region’s population is still growing more rapidly than that of the nation, its convergence upon national income norms remains stalled. Personal income per capita in South Carolina in 2021 remained just under 80 percent of the national average. The South’s Carolina’s cost-of-living, while much lower than the national average, only partially mitigates the impact of the state’s lower income, and that adjustment still leaves SC only 88 percent of national income adjusted for cost of living. Why, despite vigorous development efforts, has South Carolina’s per capita income failed to escape that of the nation’s bottom quintile of states? History suggests that to stop the development drift, a thoroughgoing reconsideration of South Carolina’s approach to economic development is needed. To compete effectively in the new, knowledge-based economy of the twenty-first century, South Carolina must abandon its low wage, low tax strategy of development. The state must invest more heavily and patiently in the education and training of our state’s citizens than ever before, partially because the knowledge and skill challenges of the new economy demand it and partially because the state has a long history of chronic under-investment to overcome. To fail to make this unprecedented investment in human capital will be to doom the South Carolina economy to a new era of stagnation and decline after a remarkable resurgence in the mid-twentieth century.
Twenty-First Century South Carolina’s Economic Dilemma