From Tobacco Fields to Server Farms
You can chart North Carolina's economic transition with a torrent of statistics. But how North Carolina has reacted to recent economic punches perhaps tells as much.
Fifty years ago, a dry spell of the scale of the 2007-08 drought would have sent the news media into spasms of hand-wringing and calls for aid to suffering farmers. Now, the debate over the drought revolves around homeowners watering their lawns and modifying their indoor plumbing, and over whether metro areas will have enough water to sustain business expansion.
North Carolina is more concerned these days about keeping GlaxoSmithKline's medicine production and Google's server farm watered than about tobacco, corn and soybean crops.
When Pillowtex closed its massive textile operations in Kannapolis and Eden (formerly Cannon Mills) -- the largest mass layoff in North Carolina history -- near panic set in, and the state rushed in teams to find job re-training and support services for thousands of low-skill workers. Now, a billion-dollar North Carolina Research Campus is rising across the railroad tracks from the old mill village, and a McMansion-style subdivision has sprouted on the outskirts of town.
By contrast, no panic arose when Philip Morris announced that it would pull its cigarette manufacturing, employing 2,400 people, out of Concord by 2010; the company provided time for an adjustment period, and the state has learned that it can adjust.
The old small-farm, small-factory economy has given way to a statewide economy that has converged substantially with the nation's economy. In the 1970s and 1980s, the cry went out across the state: "Diversify, diversify." North Carolina took its own advice. The major metropolitan areas now feature diverse economies, with employment relatively balanced among business and industry sectors.
As a result, North Carolina has reached a level of affluence that its leaders could hardly have imagined a half-century ago. While overall per capita income remains below the national mark, nearly half of the households in our city-state metros have annual income above $50,000 -- and fully 17 percent of household have incomes above $100,000. And in an economy that awards a premium to the well-educated, 57 percent of the North Carolinians with a bachelor's degree or higher live in the three city-state metros.
But the burgeoning of the affluent, knowledge workers, professionals, and entrepreneurs has created a dynamic that has led to wide disparities between the rich and the poor, as well as the near-poor.
In a study comparing the states, the Economic Policy Institute/Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ranks North Carolina as having the 10th-widest gap in average income between the top fifth and bottom fifth of families.
According to the institute's analysis, expressed in 2002 dollars, the bottom fifth of North Carolina families had average income of $14,884, and the second fifth averaged $28,200. Action for Children, meanwhile has computed what it costs for a family with two children, ages 3 and 7, to live in Charlotte, and finds that it stretches the budget of even a $50,000-a-year family to afford health insurance after paying for housing, food, transportation, child care, and taxes.
The next frontier in education presents itself in several dimensions. Half of the Latino adults living in North Carolina lack a high school diploma. Nearly one in five adults, including people of all races and ethnic groups, dropped out before getting a diploma. Nearly half of all public school students in North Carolina qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a key indicator of both family well-being and educational neediness.
High percentages of students qualifying for subsidized meals show up not only in rural counties -- 51 percent in Graham, 72 percent in Greene, and 40 percent in Granville -- but also in metropolitan districts -- 47 percent in Mecklenburg, 50 percent in Durham, and 49 percent in Guilford.
So long as it continues to grow, North Carolina will see expansion of low-wage, low-skill jobs in services and retail. The moral, as well as economic imperative, is to give people the opportunity to work their way up the career ladder, so that no job or low-wage jobs are not their only options.
Thus, there is no economic development strategy for the future that does not include an education agenda that stretches from pre-K through a community college credential or a university degree. There is no equity strategy that does not include competitiveness -- that is, making both people and places more fit for the economic race that globalization has intensified.
North Carolina should look to its universities, as well as to its philanthropic and nonprofit sectors, to provide the policy guidance to address these and other social, cultural and governance issues that arise out of the metropolitanization of North Carolina:
-- How do we ameliorate de facto racial, ethnic, and class segregation in our civil society, especially in public schools?
-- How do we forge regional arrangements to link people to jobs?
-- How do we preserve democratic governance in sprawling city-states that are the products of economic dynamics and individual lifestyle choices?
-- How do we produce a new generation of leaders, public as well as private, to match the leaders who built the foundation for the North Carolina of today?
-- How do we create a level playing field so that all North Carolinians benefit?
The biblical injunction -- to whom much is given, much is expected -- applies to North Carolina. Now that it has grown in population and bulked up in economic prowess, this mega-state has greater wherewithal than ever to address the unfinished business of its past and confront the challenges of its future.
More like this story