The General Assembly’s Republican majority overwhelmingly represents rural North Carolina, but rural North Carolina has little to show for it.
Actually, it has less to show for it. Of the state’s 100 counties, 51 mostly rural counties lost population in a census report issued this month, even as booming urban areas increased the state’s population by 9.5 percent. Rebecca Tippett, the director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill, said, “More counties than expected lost population and the losses were larger than expected.”
The shift refutes the low-tax, low-spending policies Republican legislative leaders have slavishly followed since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011. While the movement from rural to urban areas is a national trend, the legislative majority has accelerated the exodus by blocking or neglecting policies and investments that would spur rural job growth.
Norris Tolson, a former Democratic state legislator and former state secretary of transportation and secretary of commerce, now leads Carolinas Gateway Partnership, a group trying to boost economic development in Tolson’s native Edgecombe County. Since 2010, the county has lost 14 percent of its population. “The migration of the population speaks for itself,” he said. “People are moving to where they think the jobs are.”
Republicans have hurt the very people who elected them. Consider what the majority has done:
• Blocked Medicaid expansion for seven years. That has left hundreds of thousands of working poor without medical insurance and denied the state billions of dollars in federal aid. The impact has fallen hardest on rural hospitals. Since 2010, five of North Carolina’s 50 rural hospitals have closed and another nine are considered at risk of closing, according to a report from the Chartis Center for Rural Health.
• Slowed spending on public schools. Public schools are the main employer in 59 counties. Starving them for operating and capital funds stymies the local economy. Urban counties have raised property taxes to compensate. Rural counties don’t have the tax base to do that.
• Cut income taxes in ways that give the biggest breaks to large corporations and higher earners. The reductions mostly benefit white-collar urban workers even as they reduce the state’s ability to invest in rural areas.
• Opposed state borrowing. Republican leaders prefer a pay-as-you-go approach over approving state bond issues. What rural governments need most is money for roads, water and sewer, but the legislature has not supported the level of borrowing needed to fund major rural infrastructure projects.
• Bungled broadband expansion. In 2011, the legislature, kowtowing to telecommunications companies, blocked municipalities from operating their own broadband networks. Ten years later, access to high-speed internet – an essential tool for businesses, remote work, virtual schooling and telemedicine – is still unavailable or of poor quality in much of rural North Carolina.
• Targeted undocumented immigrants. Hispanic immigrants are a key part of the rural workforce in meatpacking and agriculture and their share of the rural population is growing. In Duplin, Sampson and Lee counties, for instance, 20 percent of the population is Hispanic, and that’s likely an undercount. Rather than helping the undocumented among the Hispanic population gain legal status, Republicans have encouraged their arrest and deportation.
Tolson said there is no single “silver bullet” to help rural counties, but “good, conscientious government policy” can make a difference.
On the other side, bad, callous government policy also has an effect.
Ten years ago, rural voters put their faith in Republican promises to lift their communities. Now, feeling the effects of those broken promises, rural residents are increasingly voting with their feet.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com