For the past 50 years, North Carolina has been shifting from a rural to an urban/suburban state. During that time, state leaders have put money and effort into easing the transition for rural counties and provided resources to encourage economic growth. All that changed in Pat McCrory’s budget.
McCrory’s budget reflects an ideological shift that allows the free market to dictate the economic fate of rural areas. The governor slashed funding for organizations and programs that create jobs, provide training and support infrastructure development in our poorest counties. And in the legislature, there’s talk of closing university campuses. You can guess where they are located. Many counties will now sink or swim on their own ability produce economic output with little support from state government.
McCrory’s budget also might reflect a generational shift. Until recently, most of our state’s leaders came from rural counties or at least grew up in one of the small towns that dot the state. They may have left the homestead but they often kept family ties, sentimental attachments and, sometimes, economic interests in their home counties. McCrory, Art Pope and Thom Tillis are creatures of the New South represented most notably by Charlotte and the Research Triangle.
In the big picture, the budget presents North Carolina with the stark choice we face in how to address the problems in our rural regions. Almost half of the state’s counties are losing population and most suffer from higher unemployment than the state as a whole. These areas are getting older and their most motivated young people are leaving for areas that offer greater opportunity.
We can use the power and financial resources of government to develop an infrastructure, creating jobs along the way, that may or may not attract business and industry. That option requires urban areas to subsidize rural ones and a belief that our small towns and communities are worth saving. Or we can let the market decide and watch rural counties continue to age and die. That option requires a belief that the efficiency of the free market outweighs sentimentality and diversity.