Despite the rhetoric in Raleigh, there has been little accomplished as it pertains to generating job growth and furthering economic opportunity in the rural areas of North Carolina. Most of rural North Carolina consistently ranks near or at the bottom in employment and economic opportunity rankings.
Most of the talk has centered on the need to get the rural areas employment numbers more in line with state unemployment figures since the now supercharged areas of Raleigh and Charlotte are consistently outperforming other areas and states in the U.S. Well, let’s take a look at the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to so eloquently wax.
The unemployment rate in the urban centers of the state seems to hover around 4.5-6.5 percent of the total workforce that is actively seeking employment. This does not include approximately 4-5 percent of the workforce that are no longer receiving benefits or have stopped actively looking for work.
If you look at the most recent figures for Columbus, Bladen and Robeson counties, you will understand why the figures that are published related to unemployment don’t accurately depict the dire economic situation in our rural communities.
The unemployment rates in Columbus, Robeson, and Bladen counties are all between 8 and 9 percent. Robeson County has the highest unemployment rate of the three at 8.7 percent. These are all significantly higher than the state unemployment rate of 5.5 percent. While the unemployment rate has fallen in these areas, it’s not clear that the economic picture has positively improved.
There are 1,400 fewer people employed in Columbus County since 2013, and 2,175 residents have left the labor force. In Robeson County, there are 4,667 fewer residents in the labor force and 2,842 fewer people employed than in 2013. Bladen County has similarly seen a decrease in labor force participation and virtually no job growth.
It’s time to admit a brutal fact: Rural North Carolina is not seeing the economic recovery that Charlotte and Raleigh are experiencing.
The “Carolina Comeback” we’ve heard so much about is unimpressive at best when you consider that 60 of North Carolina’s 100 counties have not fully recovered from the recession. In 15 of those counties, all rural, employment is 10 percent lower than it was prior to the 2007 recession. In more than 75 percent of North Carolina counties, employment has not kept up with population growth.
With dire economic numbers like these facing rural North Carolina, it’s easy to understand why voters in the Southeastern part of the state wonder why the Legislature is so focused on divisive social issues — when we should be debating plans to create new jobs, ensure we have economic growth, that we can expand beyond agribusiness and provide real opportunities for rural North Carolina.
Leaders in Raleigh need to get serious about advancing a pro-growth agenda for rural North Carolina. The time is now. Rural North Carolina is depending on it.
State Rep. Ken Waddell, D-Columbus, represents Bladen, Columbus and Robeson counties in House District 46. He is a member of the N.C. Main Street Democrats Legislative Caucus chaired by Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond.