Alexander H. Jones: State’s leaders are failing rural North Carolina

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 2, 2022

By Alexander H. Jones

Between the year 2000 and the end of that decade, North Carolina was the sixth-fastest growing state in the country.

But even as the metros and resorts boomed, eight of our counties lost population. That divergence starkly illustrated the unfairness generated by a global economy that was hard on mill workers and farmers alike. Arguably, rural hardship contributed to the eruption of conservatism in the 2010 midterm elections. Since Republicans took the legislature that year, however, rural decline has not reversed. Instead, it has markedly accelerated.

If eight counties losing population was a trend that cast a darker light on modern North Carolina demography, the emptying-out of rural areas in the era of Republican leadership of our state has escalated to crisis levels. In the decade since the GOP took control of our state government, a staggering 51 counties have lost population. The vast majority of these stricken counties are rural, and a great many send conservative Republicans to the state legislature. They are experiencing profound population loss and hardship at a time when our state’s new establishment political class has greatly amplified the political influence of homogeneous rural jurisdictions.

This has come about despite lavish earlier promises. Former state Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown once promised that tax cuts, deregulation, and union-busting would bring vitality back to the North Carolina countryside. Site Selection magazine noted that industrial prospects found it hard to procure incentives for projects located in metro areas, as the city-haters in the legislative majority steered economic development funding away from urban counties and toward the rural districts that Republicans represent. But instead of a small-town renaissance, this new era of austerity has coincided with their own homes and constituents inexorably hollowing out.

Beyond their core economic failures, Republicans have slighted small-town North Carolina in the area of public investment. Lack of access to health care reflects the failure of government to meet a crucial human need, but rural politicians such as Senator Phil Berger have maintained a stubborn blockade against Medicaid expansion. Rural hospitals are closing, and yet rural Republicans remain resolutely indifferent.

On another front, they refuse to fund a “sound basic education” for students living in under-resourced rural school districts, as our state constitution requires, sticking instead to a steady strategy of declining investment in public education. North Carolina’s Great Depression-era Governor O. Max Gardner had the clairvoyance to centralize education funding so that the poor districts could keep up with the rich. Under GOP rule, urban districts have been able to partially compensate for state-level austerity by increasing their own investments. And yet our rural schools languish.

In fairness, rural decline is also affected by forces beyond our state government’s control. But Republican politicians should not have promised rural voters that giving them control of state government would solve their decline. Colorful dreams of a free-market utopia were foisted upon the residents of a declining rural foundation, and the results came to were predictable. Sometimes, voters get exactly what they asked for. The people of rural North Carolina deserve a government that cares about them not just as a supposedly virtuous counterpoint to urban excess, but as citizens whose prosperity matters, and whose communities should be saved.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill. Have feedback? Reach him at alex@carolinaforward.org.

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