BILLY RAY HALL: Stimulate Us: North Carolina's Rural Areas Need Help, Too
A friend of mine predicted recently that rural North Carolina would emerge from this recession relatively unscathed.
After all, the recession that began in 2001 wiped out 117,000 manufacturing jobs, 39,000 in textiles alone. What, he asked, did rural communities have left to lose?
As it turns out, quite a lot. Consider that:
-- More than 75 percent of manufacturing jobs lost last year were in the state's 85 rural counties. That translates into 12,700 rural jobs in just one sector. (Compare data from the second quarter of 2007 to 2008.)
-- During that period, rural counties suffered a net loss of private-sector jobs. The only job growth was in the public sector.
-- As of December 2008, more than half of the state's unemployed workers were rural, a whopping 186,000 rural North Carolinians.
-- Sixteen of 17 counties with unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher were rural: Anson, Burke, Caldwell, Caswell, Cherokee, Chowan, Cleveland, Edgecombe, Halifax, McDowell, Montgomery, Richmond, Rutherford, Scotland, Vance and Warren.
Added to these problems are retail losses, small business declines, construction slowdowns, cutbacks in hours, foreclosures and bankruptcies, workers in dire need of retraining, declining tax bases in financially strapped small towns and more than 709,000 rural North Carolinians already living in poverty.
The bottom line: This is not an urban recession, as it is sometimes portrayed. It is a severe recession for both rural and urban America. That means that President Obama and Congress must pay careful heed to the needs of rural people and places as they shape the federal stimulus program.
I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to speak on the needs of rural America, from a North Carolina perspective, at a U.S. House of Representatives roundtable led by Congressman Mike McIntyre. Briefly, here's what I believe we must do to spur rural development.
-- Create immediate jobs through investments in critical infrastructure.
-- Invest in rural water and sewer systems. Rural North Carolina has $751 million in water and sewer construction projects ready to go in 67 counties. These investments can generate and protect more than 26,000 jobs.
-- Invest in broadband deployment. Since 2002, access to high-speed Internet service has increased in rural North Carolina from 66 to nearly 80 percent. Connectivity is no longer an option. It's a requirement.
-- Invest in public school construction. Rural North Carolina will require $2 billion for new school construction and nearly $1 billion in school renovations by 2011. Investments in these projects will benefit local economies and local students.
-- Invest in road and bridge construction. North Carolina has $1.4 billion in road projects that are ready to go in the next 90 to 120 days. Many of these projects are in rural counties.
-- Invest in small businesses, the lifeblood of rural communities. Tax credits for job creation by small and existing businesses are a critical part of the stimulus program.
-- Invest in business and industry that can make rural areas competitive in the years ahead. Emerging growth industries include, but are not limited to, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, the aerospace and aviation industries and a range of green industries.
Invest in rural workers to help them survive the recession and prepare for the future. Congress should champion measures to assist laid-off rural workers and to train workers for jobs in growth industries.
-- Ensure that rural America gets a fair shake in the stimulus program. To accomplish this, I recommend that the stimulus program require the equitable distribution of funds to rural and low-wealth areas; that funds be made available in the form of grants rather than loans; that rural communities have immediate and equal access to information about the stimulus program; and that stimulus dollars be accompanied by training dollars to ensure that the jobless can access the new jobs.
Rural North Carolina and rural America have never needed the assistance of our federal partner more than we do today. I call on leadership at every level in North Carolina to speak out now, while it counts. If the federal government does right by us, I can promise that rural North Carolina will put every nickel to work, creating jobs and building the economy for the future.
And the good news is that everyone, rural and urban, wins. We'll all benefit from statewide investments in transportation networks, business growth, clean water supply and upgraded public schools and, most of all, from our workers returning to work.
Billy Ray Hall is president of the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that promotes comprehensive economic development for the state's 85 rural counties.
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