Welcome to the Confederacy

Politicians joke that Ohio could become North Mississippi. Here's the skinny: We already are.

Whenever he talks about higher education -- which is often -- University of Akron President Luis Proenza likes to tell a story that neatly sums up the sorry state of Ohio's system.

Twenty years ago, Proenza was working as an administrator at the University of Georgia when he began advising the governor, Joe Frank Harris, on the role colleges and universities could play in the state's economic development. His recommendation: Emulate Ohio, which had been a leader in the field under Governor James Rhodes.

When Proenza came back to Ohio in 1999, however, he realized how drastically things had changed. "It was a bit of an irony for me, [because] 20 years ago I was advising Georgia to emulate Ohio, and now I am doing exactly the reverse," he says.

Proenza's insight is hardly unique. During the last several years, it seems, not a month has gone by in which Ohioans aren't reminded about how much poorer, dumber, and less technically advanced we are than much of the country. The headline "Ohio Ranks Near Bottom in . . ." now seems like a permanent feature of the state's newspapers.

These days, politicians, academics, and opinion writers regularly clamor about how the state is falling behind. Newspaper readers are subjected to series that could be titled: Why Ohio Sucks. Legislators make jokes about changing the state's name to North Mississippi.

All of which only dances around a disheartening conclusion. In many ways -- from health care to higher education to economics -- Ohio isn't falling behind. It's already fallen. The state's not in danger of becoming like Mississippi. It is Mississippi. All we're missing are some barbecue joints and a new set of road signs: Welcome to the Newest Member of the Confederacy.

Take health care. Ohio -- home to some of the best medical facilities in the world -- has a higher infant mortality rate than Arkansas and Kentucky. Its death rate from cancer is one of the highest in the nation, ahead of South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, according to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

At the same time, the state spends less per capita on overall health care than much of the nation, including Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Arkansas, and Kentucky. It's the same story when it comes to money for mental health services: Ohio's outlay is actually less per capita than that of Mississippi and South Carolina -- two places not known for lavish social spending.

As Miriam Plax, executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, notes: "It makes it difficult to put together a system of recovery for someone . . . basic health services are tremendously important, but it only gets someone so far."

Nowhere is Ohio's new membership in Dixie more apparent, however, than in the state's most important obligation: educating its citizens. Though Ohio boasts one of the higher high school graduation rates in the country, it now ranks 39th in the country for the number of adults with college degrees, trolling in the same territory as Alabama and Louisiana. Georgia, Texas, and North Carolina actually have more educated populaces.

"Many of those places long ago invested in universities as potential engines for economic growth," says state Representative Ed Jerse (D-Euclid). "In the '80s and '90s, we gave away a billion or two billion dollars in tax cuts -- money that could have been invested in our universities, could have put us more at the forefront, and now we're playing catch-up."

But the state isn't playing that game very well either. Ohio now ranks 41st in per capita spending on higher education. As a result, the state's public schools charge more for tuition than all but a handful of other states -- even though it can't boast a single school in U.S. News & World Report's top tier of university rankings.

"What Ohio has failed to do is build the base of excellent research capacity at our colleges and universities, like other states have done," says Proenza. Indeed, besides Ohio State, "there is no other public university that could lay claim that it is a world-class research university."

This from a guy who is president of one of those less-than-world-class schools.

The lack of higher-ed investment has led to other ways in which Ohio has more in common with the Possum Trot than Palo Alto. In a study conducted last year by Forbes magazine and the Milken Institute -- a business think tank -- only Columbus was ranked among the nation's top 100 cities to do business. It came in at No. 66, lower than such dynamic locales as Houma, Louisiana, and Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Indeed, while Ohio has been saving dying industries, Bubba was spinning out IPOs. In 2001, Milken's Knowledge-Based Economy Index revealed that venture capital investment in Ohio was lower than in Mississippi, Kentucky, Georgia, and North Carolina. Likewise, in a New Economy Index compiled by the Progressive Policy Institute last year, Ohio was ranked 33rd, behind Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia.

"Even objective, neutral observers . . . basically say Ohio's economic policy has been targeted toward the quantity of jobs, not the quality of jobs," says state Senator Eric Fingerhut (D-Cleveland). "We've been chasing the lowest common denominator. It's been a race to the bottom."

And the bottom keeps sinking. From 1979 to 1999, Ohio was one of only five states where inflation-adjusted wages for many workers actually fell. In contrast, almost every state of the old Confederacy saw wages rise: 10 percent in Mississippi, 13 percent in North Carolina, and 17 percent in South Carolina.

"For the vast majority of people [in Ohio], they are working more hours, they are working harder, and they are making less money per hour," says Amy Hanauer, director of Policy Matters Ohio, a labor-funded think tank that crunched the numbers.

The result: Today, a family is likely to make more money in Macon than in Massillon.

"The ultimate test measure of the well-being of families and the economy is the income of Ohio workers. That's the bottom line," says Fingerhut. "And in the '90s, the average income of Ohio workers slipped, to the point where we are now well below the national average."

Not everyone is pitching gloom and doom, of course. "I don't buy the line that we're slipping to Third World status," says state Representative Jim Trakas (R-Independence). "You've got a strong state with a modestly dormant economy right now . . . Ohio is one of 50 states competing in the knowledge economy, and we have a leg up in some areas, and we're behind in others."

He has a point. The state boasts an economy the size of South Africa's. It leads the nation in producing steel, paint, soap, rubber, and plastic products. It's second in manufacturing automobiles and third in total manufacturing output. The state's library system is second to none.

But in most quality-of-life categories, Ohio isn't just failing to keep up; it's slipping further back in the pack. Public officials, for example, have been kvetching about higher education in Ohio for years, yet since 1999, the budget for the college and university system has been cut by $313 million.

And even when state government decides to act, the efforts are often too late or half-assed. It wasn't a year into this millennium that Governor Bob Taft unveiled his Third Frontier project, aimed at promoting start-up companies and expanding the state's tech research capabilities.

"It's a hopeful sign," says Jerse. "The discouraging part of it is that it doesn't seem to be undertaken with the enthusiasm or the depth that other states have undertaken years ago."

Echoes Proenza: "Without question, the Third Frontier is a huge and important step, but as important as that is, it's only one of many things that are needed."

Indeed, unless something changes, politicians in Mississippi may soon worry about becoming South Ohio.