If the 2016 election cycle ever leaves the focus on personalities and gets down to issues we might focus on questions like candidate Ronald Reagan asked voters in 1980: “…Are you better off than you were four years ago?” In North Carolina, the answer depends on who you are and where you live.
North Carolina’s overall economy is improved. Syndicated columnist and NC SPIN panelist John Hood recently wrote, “Since June 2013, North Carolina employers have added some 252,000 net new jobs. That’s an increase of 6.2 percent, a rate significantly higher than the national average of 5.1 percent.” He says that since mid-2013 our state Gross Domestic Product has grown by an inflation-adjusted 3.2 percent, higher than the national average of 2.5 percent and 2.4 percent in the Southeastern U.S. Per person income has risen 3.6 percent, compared to 3.4 percent nationally and 3.3 percent in the Southeast.
A recent Economic Snapshot by the NC Budget and Tax Center looked at county-by-county data. Policy Analyst Tazra Mitchell, reported, “Where you live matters for your ability to get ahead and this county-level data shows that inequality of opportunity persists across the state.”
Those living in urban and exurban areas are enjoying the improved economy, while those in rural counties struggle. 17.2 percent of our population has an income below the poverty level. Sixty-three counties, many in the rural east and far west, had higher poverty rates than that average, ranging from a low of 9.7 percent in Camden County to 33.1 percent in Robeson.
I reported some of this in a recent speech and one audience member asked what could be done to improve rural areas. That question has plagued state leaders for decades and my response was that we’re really not much closer to answers today than when it was first raised.
Many of today’s struggling communities were built and thrived in a time when folks came to town, often by horse and buggy, to sell crops and buy goods. As factories were built many left to take higher paying jobs, an exodus that has only accelerated, exponentially exacerbated by folks now shopping on the Internet. Vacant storefronts now line once viable communities and work is scarce.
There’s no “magic bullet” and no federal or state funding that will fix rural problems, but it is in all our best interests to help, since our state will be forced, either by courts, state law or moral obligation to pour more resources into propping up schools, social services and healthcare.
Some honest evaluation needs to begin by acknowledging that most small towns will never be what they once were, but each has individual strengths and opportunities to counter threats. All need to do whatever they can to encourage start-up businesses that create jobs, with help such as free or reduced rent, taxes or fees. Some can evolve as bedroom communities providing desirable amenities. Others can reinvent themselves into tourist destinations, retirement communities or specialize on arts and crafts, like pottery or antiques.
Here’s the bottom line: each town or county has some feature or benefit that can be exploited. Local leadership has to decide and be determined to survive and thrive in today’s environment. The help they desire won’t come from outside. It will come from within.
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.