The Linville Gorge is called “the Grand Canyon of North Carolina,” but the state is quickly developing an even more dramatic and profound chasm. This one isn’t a gash in the earth. It’s the demographic and economic divide opening between North Carolina’s urban and rural areas.
The state’s urban counties, especially Wake and Mecklenburg, are booming, but its rural counties are struggling. The Associated Press reports that half of North Carolina’s recent population growth came from the counties that include Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, while 48 rural counties lost population.
The News & Observer’s next Community Voices event will explore the issue in a forum entitled: “Bridging North Carolina’s urban-rural divide.” The forum featuring four panelists (see below) will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 28 at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. Admission is free, but please register in advance at eventbrite.com.
North Carolina’s trend reflects a national and worldwide trend. A knowledge-based economy is creating new concentrations of well-educated workers in urban hubs while rural areas based on older and fading economic models are losing jobs and young people. The Wall Street Journal’s opinion columnist William A. Galston focused on the urban-rural split last week in a column headlined: “Why cites boom while towns struggle.” He called the diverging pattern “The most fundamental economic trend of our time.”
In North Carolina, the urban-rural divide is having a profound effect on access to medical care, the quality of rural public schools and the politics of the state legislature. While the trend is obvious and threatening to the state’s overall welfare, state government has been ineffective in addressing it.
Gov. Roy Cooper is the latest official to take on the issue with a new program called Hometown Strong aimed at helping rural communities. But effective action is often subverted by the very divide being addressed. Rural lawmakers want to take from the cities. Urban lawmakers want to harbor their gains.
Former state Rep. Pryor Gibson, the program’s executive director, hopes this time will be different. “We’ve had 12 different state commissions looking at how to bridge the rural-urban divide,” he told a legislative committee this month. “The information is there, we just need more action.”
But already Cooper’s attempt to secure funding for rural counties in the path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline has sunk into a fight with Republican lawmakers who attacked the money as a “slush fund.” Given that lack of bipartisan cooperation, the prospects for Hometown Strong’s success aren’t good.
Nonetheless, allowing the divide to grow isn’t an option. Even thriving cities will eventually be hurt if the state’s rural areas struggle with poor health, weak schools, high unemployment and an exodus of young residents. The cost of those problems will be borne by all taxpayers and the image of a state starkly divided between rich and poor will limit North Carolina’s appeal to new businesses.
State Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing eight of the state’s rural, northeastern counties, said, “We are not going to be the thriving state that we can be until we close this gap.”
Though there has been a lack of action on closing the gap, some positive responses are clear. They include:
• Increase funding for public schools in rural areas. These schools lack the tax base to match the higher teacher pay provided by urban counties and they are particularly hard-pressed to find math and science teachers.
• Foster the development of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power to help sustain family farms.
• Help rural areas gain high-speed access to the internet. Lawmakers should repeal a state law that bars the creation of municipal internet services. Lack of access discourages economic development.
• Encourage the cultivation of alternative crops, especially organic crops and hemp that will replace the loss of tobacco in some areas. Though it’s hard to imagine it being approved by the current legislature, allowing the cultivation of medical marijuana could boost the economy of some farm areas.
• Build mass transit systems that link rural areas to urban cores without an increase in automobile traffic.
• Expand Medicaid. The infusion of billions of federal Medicaid dollars would bolster rural hospitals — a major employer — and improve rural health care, including a stronger response to the opioid epidemic.
These and other responses will be discussed by the forum’s panel. The panelists are:
Sen. Erica Smith, a second-term state senator and former high school math and physics teacher. She has pushed for better schools and job development in northeastern North Carolina.
Rochelle Sparko, policy director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association. A lawyer, Sparko maintains Darko Urban Farm in Durham and advocates for fair farm and food policies. She says encouraging commerce between small farmers and city consumers can help bridge the urban-rural divide and create more opportunities for young people in rural areas.
Patrick Woodie is president of the NC Rural Center, an economic development nonprofit that works to improve the quality of life in the state’s rural communities through small-business lending, leadership development, and community engagement. He is a former Alleghany County commissioner and head of the Blue Ridge Business Development Center.
Dr. Robert Bashford, head of the UNC School of Medicine’s newly created Office of Rural Initiatives. In this position, he works to recruit and train the next generation of primary care physicians passionate about serving in rural North Carolina. In addition, he will build multidisciplinary groups to serve in rural underserved settings.
Please do come out to learn more about this increasingly important issue. Bridging North Carolina’s rural-urban divide will start with people on both sides measuring the task together.