A Vision for Rural Economies
Most natives of North Carolina have a family connection to some rural area, even if they don’t live in the country any longer. Newcomers to North Carolina may not realize that nearly 60% of municipalities in North Carolina have fewer than 2,500 residents. North Carolina is a rural state, but our rural neighbors are often disregarded and overlooked. North Carolina’s overall prosperity will only be sustained if our rural communities succeed. A recent report from Rural Forward NC and the NC Budget and Tax Center has me thinking about what we can do differently to ensure that rural North Carolinians are not left behind.
Unfortunately, our rural areas are being left out as our overall economy improves. Although the Republican legislative majority is made up largely of members from rural areas, their economic development strategy, education investments, and tax policy are making it harder for rural North Carolinians to thrive.
While the overall unemployment rate statewide is 4.5%, in rural areas white workers face an unemployment rate of 5.9% and black workers, a rate of 11.4%. If we were able to reach full employment statewide, that would mean jobs for 146,000 rural North Carolinians. North Carolina’s economy would grow by more than $5.2 billion. Black families in rural areas could see their household incomes increase by 5% on average, and other groups could see average increases of at least 2%. 56,000 rural residents could be lifted out of poverty. Tax revenues could increase by over $1 billion.
Bringing rural North Carolinians into the workforce will require some effort but it can be done. Here are a few ideas from the report that I think would help:
Reduce barriers to existing jobs. Rural residents need transportation improvements and more accessible child care so that they can commute to work in areas where jobs are more plentiful. Some rural residents also face the obstacle of having criminal records, particularly African-Americans, who make up 45% of people under Department of Corrections supervision, even though they account for only 21% of the population. These North Carolinians would find it easier to obtain work if we were to ban employers from using criminal histories as a blanket disqualification for employment. Other workers are barred from employment by the nearly 50% of employers that require a credit check as a condition of employment. Often credit problems are the result of earlier job loss, creating a vicious cycle. Pre-employment credit checks could also be banned.
Scale up workforce development efforts that connect struggling workers to good paying work. North Carolina should expand apprenticeships and other paid job training opportunities. South Carolina increased its apprenticeships by 750 percent by using a combination of state, federal and local resources. Workforce development systems must be nimble enough to steer people into growth sectors, including rural growth areas such as renewable energy. North Carolina should return to investing in youth employment programs, because those programs are especially effective at helping develop employability skills. Youth who participate are much more likely to maintain employment later in life. We could also incentivize targeted and local hiring, to make sure that jobs created with public support go to the local people who need them most.
Create more and better jobs. North Carolina has a significant budget dedicated to recruiting and growing businesses. We need to ensure that the jobs created with these public funds benefit workers by limiting the use of temporary workers and targeting hiring in rural areas. The state could benefit from setting up a collaborative effort among large “anchor employers” where the employers work with each other, and smaller, subcontracting businesses, to target growth investments to rural areas. Further, the state could provide additional support for cooperative businesses that allow worker-owners to keep jobs in their community and build wealth.
There are lots of other things we could do. I wrote recently about the importance of expanding rural broadband, which would dramatically expand economic opportunity. Expanding Medicaid would create thousands of rural health care jobs and ensure that people are healthy enough to take jobs that may now be going unfilled. And advances in agriculture, such as dramatically expanding growth and production of industrial hemp, can help sustain our beleaguered farming economy.
We can create economic opportunity in rural areas that will allow people to keep living in the towns and counties that they love without feeling left behind. North Carolina is stronger when we take care of all of our citizens, including our rural ones. Rural North Carolinians are hurting right now, and that means it’s time for our legislature to send some support their way.
Graig Meyer is the State Representative for House District 50. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the News of Orange.