Leaving rural North Carolina
Throughout its history North Carolina was a rural state; farming was the principle source of income. The improvement of transportation in the 20th century made possible successful textile and furniture factories, prompting many to leave the family farm to take jobs at the mill. The rural exodus of people moving closer to available jobs continues to this day, creating large cities while leaving the far east and west bereft and losing hope.
Those population shifts forced political power shifts. Throughout most of our history the state’s political power structure resided in the eastern region and these politicians saw to it their regions benefitted, or at least didn’t suffer, because of their influence. But growing cities and redistricting have brought more urban representation to our Congress and our legislature, people who do not know and sometimes do not care how their actions impact rural areas. For the first time most of us can remember, there is neither a Governor, House Speaker nor Senate President Pro Tem from east of I-95 or from another rural area.
The loss of political clout and double-digit unemployment is causing a crisis that threatens not only rural areas but also our entire state. We see it playing out through fewer educational opportunities, diminished health resources, reduced cultural offerings, vacated main streets, increased crime and depressed leaders facing growing problems with few financial resources. In order to provide basic public services local officials are often forced to increase property taxes on a decreasing tax base, further discouraging people from moving to and creating jobs in these areas. We have truly become two North Carolinas: the prosperous I-85 corridor with their shoulder communities and rural North Carolina.
We’ve seen this coming. We’ve even had conversations about how to respond. We have attempted a few, very few, efforts to slow or halt the decline of rural areas but the migration continues and the problems multiply. Recent decisions to uncouple the formula that distributes funds evenly among the state’s transportation districts will result in even fewer road dollars to rural counties. And even though the regional economic development partnerships have a spotty record of job creation the proposed reorganization of the state’s economic development approach is creating angst in rural counties.
Here is today’s reality. Not everyone can or wants to live and work in urban North Carolina. Already traffic congestion, affordable housing, overcrowded schools and an overburdened public infrastructure are creating problems of a different sort and increased taxes in growing cities and also the bedroom communities around them.
Whatever we’ve been doing hasn’t worked. There are no real champions for rural North Carolina, no voices that command attention and garner support. The closest is perhaps
The Rural Center and its effectiveness is now being questioned. Meanwhile, the problems grow daily. If we don’t address and solve them the courts, if not our consciences, will force us to pour an ever-growing amount of resources into rural counties. We cannot leave rural North Carolina behind.
It is in North Carolina’s best interests to have both a vibrant urban and rural population.
Otherwise we will find ourselves in a state of poverty-filled ghost towns or overcrowded and overtaxed cities. Surely we have the brainpower to meet this challenge. The question is whether we have the will.
Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues airing Sundays at 5 a.m. on WLOS-TV. Contact him at www.ncspin.com.