North Carolina needs a serious conversation about what to do with the rural areas of our state. Since 2010, 47 of our 100 counties have lost population and the people who are left are old. Unemployment in many of our rural counties is still in double digits.
Economically, they’ve taken a beating. Tobacco is a shadow of its former self and we sent manufacturing overseas. The small businesses that once lined the streets of small towns lost out to the big box stores. Instead of three or four locally-owned hardware stores in each county, now there’s a single Lowe’s or Home Depot every thirty miles or so.
And there’s been a brain drain. While the post-war generation came back from overseas, got an education and then returned home to raise their families, the baby-boomers who left to get an education never came back. Talent became an export crop with no return on investment.
As the retail and manufacturing left, the tax base eroded. Counties have become increasingly dependent upon property taxes but, in many rural areas, land values are flat or in decline. Many are struggling to pay for basic services and lack the resources to update and modernize an infrastructure that attracts new industry or helps build homegrown businesses.
The News & Observer had an opportunity to address these issues and begin a broad conversation that asks the right questions and looks for solutions. Instead, they thought small, following the lead of free market ideologues by attacking a single institution with inflammatory headlines and anecdotal evidence. As one award-winning investigative journalist told me, “There are no supporting numbers and every lead is an accusation.
We’ve seen a series that demonizes the Rural Center and offers an Art Pope/Bob Luddy-inspired caricature of a quasi-governmental agency run amok. Now let’s see one that explores the daunting problems that this organization is trying to address. Ask the questions that challenge our leaders to find solutions. That’s what good journalism should be about.