The biggest economic threat is not globalization – it is geography. All across North Carolina are communities like my hometown of Robbins, in Moore County. These towns are on the brink of disaster but are ineligible for the economic development money that many other towns receive.
Robbins has lost over 1,500 jobs since 1990 – a number greater than its current population. Certain parts more closely resemble war-stricken Third World countries than what one would typically expect to find in a rural North Carolina town.
Recently, the Town of Robbins applied for a grant to fix its crippling infrastructure, but this grant was denied because Robbins is in a county deemed too rich for aid. Much of the town’s water and sewer system predates the 1950s, and the town continuously receives notices of water and sewer violations from state agencies. Without the customer base to support infrastructure upgrades, the town is paralyzed. When a community cannot even address fundamental infrastructure problems, how can a town hope to improve its economy?
North Carolina uses an Economic Tier System to identify which counties need financial assistance. Unfortunately, needy communities are being excluded. If a poor community is in a wealthy county (like Robbins), the tier system prevents your community from receiving life-changing assistance.
Because Moore County has two of the state’s wealthiest communities, there is a colossal difference between its richest and poorest parts. Just 30 minutes south of Robbins rests the affluent golfing destination of Pinehurst. Pinehurst is home to wealthy retirees and young professionals, and is a popular luxury vacation destination. The median household income of Robbins is $27,250; Pinehurst has a median household income of $75,284.
Areas of high economic distress are camouflaged in wealthy counties. The tier system takes an average score of the required factors and gives the county a ranking regardless of the pockets of poverty that exist. A comparison of community and county factors reveals that 42 percent of communities would have a different tier designation than their counties. There are 13 communities where a two-tier difference exists.
After decades of community leaders asking for reform, members of the General Assembly recently introduced House Bill 1082, which changes the calculations to an index system. While an index system is better than the current arbitrary ranking system, this “reform” does nothing to address the inequities because it does not include an analysis to account for economic disparities within counties.
The Department of Commerce argues that sub-county data is not reliable because it can, in rare instances, have large margins of error. Other states use sub-county analysis for similar programs and have developed protections to ensure data integrity.
HB 1082 ignores intra-county disparities and reinforces the existing inequitable practices. The General Assembly must amend the bill to address these concerns or, at the least, make exceptions for communities like Robbins.
The people of Robbins have been struggling to survive for at least two decades. If these changes are made, we can find hope again.
David Lambert, J.D.
The length limit was waived.