Republicans have an iron lock on North Carolina’s General Assembly largely because of their support in rural areas, but after six years of Republican rule those areas are faring far worse than the state’s urban areas.
A new report from the UNC Population Center shows that of the state’s 553 municipalities, 225 saw population decline in 2010-16. But those leaving – mostly younger people – are not leaving the state. Instead, they’re going to the new North Carolina, the larger cities that offer better jobs and a more diverse social life.
Why people leave dying towns and fading counties is no mystery. But it is a puzzle that lawmakers with a rural base have been so indifferent to the condition of their districts and so thoughtless about how to stem the rural-to-urban tide.
While providing little help to their rural base, the legislature’s Republican majority has hammered the cities. They’ve eliminated the privilege license tax on businesses, which help city budgets. They passed House Bill 2, a law, since rescinded, that gave legal sanction to discrimination against transgender people and eliminated local ordinances supporting gay rights. The law hurt the state’s reputation for tolerance and led to the cancellation of events and conventions, mostly in cities. And the legislature reached down to gerrymander some county and city voting districts to better Republican chances in mostly blue urban areas.
But the legislature has done little for those counties on the losing side of the population trend. Exhibit No. 1, of course, is the refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Accepting the expansion would have brought billions of federal dollars into the state. It would have helped rural hospitals and created jobs. It would have saved lives.
Another failing is the state’s unwillingness to adequately fund public schools. The schools are major employers in rural counties, and they help create a skilled workforce that attracts businesses. But the legislative majority has been content to let local school systems wither as it provides tax cuts that favor the wealthy, who predominantly live in urban areas.
Finally, there’s a long list of smaller actions that the legislature has taken that hurt rural areas and make living in those areas less desirable. Those include eliminating state funding for the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center; opposition to renewable energy projects that expand a rural tax base; blocking expansion of municipal broadband services that help local businesses and entrepreneurs; a failure to make a major push to improve Interstate 95 as a river of commerce in Eastern North Carolina and build more highways in the region and a lack of support for commuter trains that would knit urban areas and rural areas.
The legislature has also been hostile to immigrants who could re-populate rural town centers. It’s been protective of dirty pork and poultry industries that pollute the water and the air of their rural locations. And it has been slow to respond to the opioid epidemic, a scourge of many rural areas.
North Carolina is one state. Politicians may make short-term gains by casting it as two – the rural true North Carolinians vs. the socially-liberal, urban newcomers. But the state truly moves forward only when it is not divided against itself. That means connecting rural and urban economies, working across party lines and the state respecting the rights of cities to shape their evolving character and economies.
There is much to like in rural North Carolina, but the state must address what it is that drives people to leave the state’s small towns and rural counties. First among those issues is what it will take to attract businesses and jobs. That means more spending on education and transportation.
What it means most of all is a return to a rural value – neighborliness. North Carolina is not rural vs. urban, east vs. west, areas losing and areas gaining. It is one state.
The legislature and governor should seek to make North Carolina – all of it – economically vibrant in every quarter.