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Column: Voting Rights Act Brought Major Economic Benefits, Too

The Supreme Court’s rejection last week of a central element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act took aim at a measure that not only broke down barriers to political participation in the South but also made significant contributions to the economic well-being of black southerners and to the region as a whole.

Some of the economic benefits were apparent almost immediately after enactment. Surveys reported more paved roads and streetlights in black residential areas, better access to city and county services, and increased black hiring in public-sector jobs, including police and fire departments.

A comparative study of North Carolina (where only 40 counties were covered by the act) found that VRA counties recorded greater increases in black voting and elected officials, experienced faster growth in black incomes and occupational status, and attracted more revenue from both county and outside government sources. Recent work by the economists Ebonya Washington and Elizabeth Cascio showed that the elimination of literacy tests in 1965 was systematically associated with an increase in the share of state transfers to counties with higher black populations.

Longer-term economic gains were slower in coming, in large part because the path from registration and voting to fair representation in Southern politics was far from smooth. The response of many white-controlled governments was to alter jurisdictions and voting rules to dilute the black vote. It took decades of litigation, reinforced by supportive congressional votes, before the number of black elected officials began to reflect black population shares in the South.

As Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., argued in 2006, when the VRA was renewed for 25 years by overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the House: “Although the successes of the Voting Rights Act have been substantial, they have not been fast and furious. Rather, the successes have been gradual and of recent origin.”

The positive effects of the act have been documented by the economists John V.C. Nye, Ilia Rainer and Thomas Stratmann. They found that the election of a black mayor in a city with a large black population had a large impact on black employment, labor-force participation and income. And the economic gains for blacks didn’t primarily come at the expense of whites. Contrary to President Lyndon Johnson’s oft-quoted remark that the Civil Rights Act had “handed the South to the Republicans for a generation,” the VRA actually resulted in 25 years of vigorous competition between the parties in the South.

With the backing of new black voters, moderate Democrats such as John West of South Carolina, Reubin Askew of Florida, and Jimmy Carter of Georgia defeated segregationist opponents in gubernatorial races in 1970. Knowing the divisiveness of race, these new-breed governors stressed economic development and education. Improvements in public education bear directly on long-term economic well-being, and expenditures on schools in southern states had long lagged far behind national norms. Despite dire predictions that desegregation would destroy the public schools, states such as Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia saw accelerated growth in per-pupil spending after 1965. Although it initially declined during the turbulent years of 1966-1970, educational spending also increased in Alabama and Mississippi.

Every state in the former Confederacy enacted funding for kindergarten between 1968 and 1982. Some of this reflected new federal support for public schools in low-income areas, but most of it was the result of new state policy priorities, led by the New South governors.

More recently, however, this biracial political cooperation and economic progress in the South has lost steam. The reason may be that two-party competition at the state level dwindled with the consolidation in the 1990s of conservative Republican majorities that make no serious effort to compete for the black vote.

In many southern states, the effect has been to isolate blacks politically and to stifle or reverse the programs they support. After 1990, convergence toward the national average in per-pupil spending ceased or reversed in Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Most ominously, Republican control of the state legislature in places such as Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina ended the advance of black legislators to positions of leadership. Not only has black political influence been diminished, but after the high black turnout for Barack Obama in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, southern states have taken the lead in enacting measures designed to discourage registration and make voting more difficult.

This reversal has had economic consequences. In their 2011 book Taxing the Poor, the sociologists Katherine Newman and Rourke O’Brien show that southern states depend on regressive sales taxes as a source of revenue to a far greater extent than states in the rest of the country, and that these differences widened dramatically after 1990.

These regressive trends can be turned around. But that will require the mobilization of an expansive political movement, sufficiently inclusive to attract Hispanics, low-income white southerners and African-Americans. That is what’s at stake as Congress considers the Supreme Court’s invitation to revise the Voting Rights Act for a new era.

Gavin Wright is the William Robertson Coe professor of American economic history at Stanford University.