Reaching rural North Carolina

Gov. Roy Cooper
Gov. Roy Cooper AP

North Carolina has inaugurated a new governor.

And if the HB2 special session fight and Roy Cooper’s Medicaid proposal are any indication, the era of supine gubernatorial submission to the General Assembly is history as well. Our odd experiment in government sans chief executive is over. And well-interred.

Still, Gov. Cooper faces a brutal emerging battlefield. His legislative opponents will continue to routinely abuse their authority. Every executive action will be countered by rarely or never-before-seen arrogations of power. Sometimes Cooper will be able to deploy the courts. More frequently, he’ll be relegated to the bully pulpit. Here’s hoping he’ll use it effectively. In recent years there’s been no Democratic pulpit. Bully or otherwise.

God knows there’ll be ample fronts on which a strong governor’s voice is needed. But given our voting patterns, and the dramatic new dangers coming from a suddenly un-gridlocked Washington, I pray Cooper will demonstrate, forcefully and repeatedly, that, despite their rhetorical deceptions, the Republican agenda crushes the prospects and opportunities of rural North Carolina. Tar Heel Republicans may hate the big cities. But they betray the small ones every day.

Much has been made, correctly, of our growing rural-urban electoral divide. Looking at the highest visibility statewide races (including the presidency), Democrats notably widened their spread in urban areas, while suburban and, especially, rural electorates became even more deeply Republican. The partisan division between our urban and rural counties “deepened.”

But, as we all know, rural counties are our poorest. The 31 highest poverty N.C. counties are rural. The statewide rural child poverty rate is 28 percent. The urban rate is 22. Rural unemployment rates are often double those of the cities. Nash and Edgecombe counties, for example, have 7,000 fewer jobs today than they did in 2007. Urban median incomes are dramatically higher than rural ones. Amidst record-setting growth statewide, rural counties lose population in each census count.

While 10 percent of Wake County residents live in poverty, in Bladen, Northampton, Anson, Richmond, Greene, Tyrrell and Watauga, the figure is three times that. Forty-six percent of kids in Edgecombe, and 44 percent in Scotland, Robeson and Halifax counties are impoverished. The median income in Wilkes, Bladen and Anson counties is less than half the figure in Wake. Over 90 percent of students in Jones, Washington and Vance counties qualify for free and reduced meals. One in four residents of Hertford and Bertie counties doesn’t get enough to eat.

Rural North Carolinians are much more likely to be uninsured and lack access to health care than their urban counterparts. In Duplin, Avery and Alleghany counties more than one in four residents has no health care coverage. Rural hospitals strain (and sometimes close) under the refusal to accept Medicaid expansion.

Higher percentages of rural North Carolinians are unemployed and, thus, suffer more profoundly, because we recently adopted the stingiest unemployment compensation program in America. If Obamacare is repealed and Medicaid constrained, rural North Carolinians will suffer devastating, and literally life-ending consequences – at rates even more imposing than those visited on their urban counterparts.

The N.C. Republican answer, year in and year out, to these breathtaking challenges is two-fold. First, they seek, repeatedly and resolutely, to limit or deny the civil and political rights of their adversaries and the most vulnerable Tar Heels. Second, they move, continually, to shift money, resources, services and benefits away from low income North Carolinians to bestow more largesse upon the already-rich. That’s the whole shooting match. Two sentences.

Having spent much of the last two years interviewing impoverished residents in Halifax, Wayne, Robeson, Washington, Nash, Rowan, Wilkes, Lenoir, Watauga, Caswell, Catawba, Onslow and Rockingham counties, I’m compelled to say there is no chance these two perennial Republican strategies will lift the fate of rural North Carolina. I concede that the first one – denying equality to the marginalized – will pick up some votes. But it won’t put a dollar in anyone’s pocket. And if taking money from the poor and giving it the wealthy worked, rural communities would already be on easy street.

Rural North Carolina needs infrastructure, transportation, job training, health care, community investment and effective, integrated and ambitious public education. State Republicans, of course, combat these measures at every turn. They define themselves, instead, as existential tax cutters. But that’s true only if you are in the top third.

Rural North Carolinians are disproportionately low income. For most, the legislature has raised taxes, cut benefits and restricted services. That’s no path to prosperity. The new governor should make that clear every day – reminding all that we’ve had enough of politics for the preferred.

Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor of law at the University of North Carolina.