Of all the American Southerners horrified by this week’s Wonkblog headline — “Why the South is the Worst Place to Live in the U.S. — in 10 Charts” — I claim the top spot.
Not just because my great-grandmother’s century-old cast-iron cornbread skillet is my most prized possession. Not just because I rejoice when Garden & Gun magazine and Southern Living show up in the mail the same day. Not even because my sweet mother and I will fight you over the obvious primacy of the Southeastern Conference in college football.
No, I claim the most pain from Wonkblog’s pronouncement because I am both a proud Southerner, with all the fierce love of place that carries, and an official of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — the body that compiled the regional well-being data cited by Wonkblog.
Of course, the United States helped to found the OECD as part of the Marshall Plan after World War II and is still the largest of its 34 members. The OECD compiles and crunches data, helps to craft better policy ideas on everything from economic crises to education, and devises key safety and governance standards. While governments always decide whether and how to act, OECD work frequently catalyzes huge improvements.
As head of the OECD’s Washington Center, my job is to watch out for the organization’s relationships with the United States and Canada.
It seemed less than ideal when Wonkblog suggested that OECD data had just condemned the American region that I come from as less livable than others. But what really struck a chord were the follow-up articles from publications such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Anniston Alabama Star – stories that brought to the surface the conflicted feelings so many Southerners share:
We love our home but can never pretend it’s perfect.
It’s important to understand one thing: “How’s Life in Your Region,”our recent publication that served as the basis for the Wonkblog article, doesn’t actually offer any opinion about where it’s good or bad to live, whether in the South, Saskatchewan or East Slovenia.
More than 350 regions are measured on nine dimensions — income, jobs, health, access to services, environment, education, safety, civic engagement and housing – based on data on everything from air quality and life expectancy to employment and Internet access.
One thing we don’t measure is perhaps the South’s most abundant natural resource: Southerners’ appreciation for living there.
The data don't cover satisfaction (although our national-level Better Life Index does) or how we feel about home. They present objective criteria that underpin economic as well as physical well-being, including things that make our regions more or less competitive and able to provide vibrant quality of life.
The data, and the ability to compare it, are not tendered as criticism; they’re tools. What we offer is the leverage of cold, hard facts to policymakers and citizens looking to bring about change. As OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría put it, “Comparable measures of regional well-being offer a new way to gauge what policies work and can empower a community to act to achieve higher well-being for its citizens.”
For instance: When you know that more than 40 percent of U.S. regions have a quarter of their population at risk of falling into poverty, versus less than 10 percent of regions in comparable European economies, you have proof that it must be possible to do better. And you might wonder how to go about that.
There, the OECD offers help, too. We identify best practices and suggest what policymakers might do to tackle the most prevalent problems we find.
What I know — and so do my OECD colleagues in Paris, because I never shut up about my home town of Chattanooga, Tenn. — is that many smart and dedicated policymakers across the South are already doing what the OECD encourages: advancing “better policies for better lives.”
My father spent four decades at the Southeast Tennessee Development District, moving Appalachian counties from economic distress to stability. Over my life, I’ve watched the transition of that region from a place where running water wasn’t a given in every community, to the home of gigabit-per-second Internet that is energizing local economies.
Wherever we live, we all know that some things can improve there. The OECD’s new numbers provide a dispassionate measure of what’s happening and what’s possible based on our resources and our choices.
The data also reminded me that there’s a reason I work where I do. The OECD’s real value is that it better equips national, regional and local governments – and committed citizens – to lift up those places that we love so much. When we can see clearly what’s working and what isn’t, we know where to start.
Carol Guthrie is a former assistant U.S. trade representative and current head of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Washington Center.