The Black Belt is a string of counties that stretches from east Texas, through the deep South, and up into eastern Virginia. While definitions vary, the region typically is considered to encompass upwards of 623 counties across 11 states, mostly rural, crossing several smaller regions, including parts of the Mississippi Delta, Coastal Plain, and the Piedmont. Booker T. Washington famously used the term “black belt” in his 1901 work Up from Slavery, noting the earliest meaning may have been a reference to the dark, rich soil of the region, but also acknowledging the later racial distinction of where black residents exceeded whites.
The Black Belt also is home to more poverty, substandard housing, unemployment and underemployment than any other region in the country. Educational attainment is lower in the Black Belt as well, particularly among the black population, and there is an exceptionally high number of female-headed households. Financial institution penetration in the region is low, even when compared to other rural communities. Health services are sparse and the ratio of residents to primary care providers is unusually high. Each of these factors contributes to the next and creates a circle of interdependence that is confounding in its complexity.
This Regional Resource examines some of the key obstacles to access to capital in the Black Belt, as well as emerging financing tools that may help this often-overlooked region. It also discusses ways in which state government can foster greater investment in this part of the country, and highlights a handful of successful programs that may serve as examples.