I had planned to devote this column to part 2 of the ‘School Floor Explained’. That is, until something else caught my eye. Last week, the Scotland County monthly unemployment numbers were published in this newspaper. I was struck by how low the numbers were. I am referring not to the local unemployment rate (8.6 percent), but rather, what caught my attention, was how small the size of Scotland County’s workforce (11,586) has become and how few working people lived here (10, 588). Those numbers seemed a lot lower than what they used to be, but I had not really kept up with them. Like most of us, I usually just focus on the unemployment rate, but this time I looked at the employment numbers more closely. So, here is what I found out, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor website.
Over the past 20 years there has been a startling 40 percent reduction in the size of our county’s workforce and the number of people employed. In 1997, our workforce reached its peak (18,146) as did the number of people working (16,833). Since 1997, there has been a steady decline, with each year fewer than the previous year, and it continues to this day. To show how dramatically worse the real job picture in Scotland County has become over the past 20 years, if the size of our workforce was the same today as it was in 1997, our unemployment rate would not be 8.6 percent, but 42 percent. In other words, over the past 20 years, Scotland County’s unemployment rate has remained relatively stable but not by keeping the same number of jobs, rather only because our workforce has declined by 40 percent through relocation, retirement, disability or other causes. The unfortunate fact is that there are a mind-boggling 40 percent less Scotland County residents working than 20 years ago.
Some might read the above and say, ‘what’s the big deal, through the years we have managed to keep our unemployment rate about the same, it’s just we are a smaller community now.’ But that assumption would be wrong. Let me explain.
Surprisingly, since 1997, the population of Scotland County actually has grown, albeit very little, rising from 35,501 Scots in 1997 to 36,157 in 2017. Also worth making note of is that while the school-age population has declined over the past 20 years, from a peak of 7,015 students in 1997 to 5,862 today, this decline is nowhere near as dramatic as the shrinkage of our workforce and employed County residents.
So what does this all mean and does it have implications on how we plan our future here? One important and unavoidable conclusion is that the financial burden of running this community will fall on fewer and fewer working people and more and more on people living on a fixed income. An important consideration might be, at what point, with further contraction of the workforce and perhaps fewer surviving retirees (since there a fewer jobs to retire from), will the financial burden become too great to fund the essentials of our community? After all, most working people and retirees here already feel the tax and utility burden they are being forced to carry is too great.
The implications of this steadily declining and drastically reduced workforce on local government spending would seem to be self-evident. That now, with a tax base increasingly dependent on fewer working people and more people living on a fixed income, is not the time to take on the debt of $50 million of new government buildings and schools. Particularly when the current buildings are more than adequate and there are so many critical infrastructure needs. And that it is perhaps not wise or considerate to unnecessarily burden the relatively few remaining working people (now only 29 percent of county residents vs 47 percent in 19997) with an additional tax burden of $4 million a year of mortgage payments for the next 20 years. Local government spending decisions have to take into account that over the past 20 years Scotland County has gone from one out of two residents working to one out of four working. And that until there is some evidence of a turnaround or growth, local elected officials would be prudent to make due with buildings that are ‘good enough’ and already paid for.
If anyone reading this agrees with me, complain to your local elected officials, because it seems to upset them when I complain.
Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.