Left-Behind Rurals: Some Facts, Many Questions by Frank Stricker
Job totals keep increasing in this long economic recovery and the unemployment rate has stayed under 4% for awhile. But there are not enough jobs for everyone who needs a job, and certainly not enough good ones. This is especially true for many poor and neglected urban neighborhoods and rural communities. More jobs in the national total does not do enough to relieve employment and poverty problems in many of these areas.
Because not enough jobs are reaching depressed communities, targeted direct-job creation is essential. Among large-scale proposals is the Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act, which people in National Jobs for All Network helped to write. It has had several dozen sponsors in the House of Representatives. The proposed legislation uses federal funds to pay for jobs in government and non-profits. It is not limited to city populations, but it may work best in areas where there are many jobless persons and which are near employers who can later offer participants regular jobs. There is also a major proposal by UC Irvine economist David Neumark. It is urban-oriented. Neumark's proposal includes a thorough demolition of job-creation efforts that rely on tax incentives for capitalist investors. (There's such a program in the 2017 Republican tax-cut legislation.) The key to both proposals is the recognition that decent jobs won't get to where they are needed unless the federal government funds them.
There are scholars and also emigrants from rural America who believe that not much can be done or should be done to save depressed rural areas. Some such areas aren't economically viable. Some nourish nasty values. One person recalls "up-the-holler" villages reeking with self-righteousness, aggressive racism, and willful ignorance. There is a dark side to life in some small towns. But remember also that millions of rural people are African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans--groups that have higher poverty and jobless rates than rural whites.
Right now there aren't many compelling big-bang proposals for creating permanent jobs in low-population areas. In most cases, there is little reason for private investors to locate in such areas. And apparently they haven't. The decade-long economic recovery from the Great Recession has not helped. In the early 1990s recovery period, 71% of new businesses in America were in counties with fewer than 500,000 people; in the recovery from the Great Recession, just 19%. In many counties with even smaller populations, there has been no net growth in the number of business firms in recent years.
Traditional approaches won't help much. With exceptions that include solar and other green manufacturing, factory employment is unlikely to grow much in country towns. Also, many kinds of farming are becoming less labor-intensive. Coal mining is not going to make a big comeback in Appalachia; and it is a moral abomination that President Trump says otherwise. Appalachian coal is not economically viable in the long run; black lung disease is attacking miners at younger ages than ever; and coal-burning is a leading cause of global warming.
Ecological restoration projects may be a good idea for areas ravaged by mineral extraction. And what about new tech jobs? Entrepreneur Ankur Gopal and a couple of politicians have brought a handful of good tech jobs to a severely depressed coal area of Eastern Kentucky. Whether that effort can be enlarged and replicated elsewhere is uncertain. Rural areas may need access to high-speed internet, and they should have it. But will new businesses and enough good jobs follow? Entrepreneurs who want companies that innovate tend to believe that innovation thrives where there are large agglomerations of skilled workers, and proximity to transportation, as well as restaurants, theaters, and other things that make educated workers happy.
There are experts who say that the best thing we can do for the rural poor is help them leave town. Governments can offer moving subsidies. A utopian suggestion is to increase the amount of affordable housing units in San Francisco, New York, and other cities, and thus provide a stronger incentive to get people away from rural America. Some observers suggest that we strengthen small cities, such as Rockford, Illinois, and build links between such cities and the rural communities that can be part of their economic networks.
Any program to lift people in some rural districts has to lift wages. Solving poverty cannot be done by maintaining a sub-poverty federal minimum wage. The federal minimum wage should be put on the road to $15, as House Democrats have now proposed. It's true, some establishments may shut down. That they cannot support a living wage is a reasons why government has to step in
Is rural America hostile to big government? Some of its inhabitants may be, but quite a few of them are hooked on government assistance. Can they be helped to face reality? Elites in poor southern states in the south have been happy with the kind of state socialism that brought a lot of military installations. Why not socialism focused on civilian projects? If the private sector cannot supply a living wage, government should do it, directly or indirectly. In a way it's already happening, but not in mines and factories. Educational, health and social service establishments--some of them governmental or non-profit--are already the single largest employing group in the 704 entirely rural counties in America.
Many southern Republican governors don't seem to care much about poor people. I could be wrong. While popular support for Obamacare provisions is growing, southern governments are active in the campaign against the Obamacare-Medicaid expansion, and some are imposing phony work requirements to keep poor people from getting assistance. That won't help people who cannot afford health insurance, or opioid and heroin addicts who need a lot of help. And those who resist Obamacare are fighting to limit a sector that is always adding new jobs. Of 86 rural hospitals that have closed in America since 2010, most are in southern states that have not expanded Medicaid coverage.
Frank Stricker is on the board of NJFAN and emeritus professor of history and labor studies at California State University, Dominguez Hills. He is finishing What Ails the American Worker? Unemployment and Crummy Jobs: History, Explanations, Remedies.
Questions and comments welcome. Some useful readings that helped me:
Arnosti, Nathan, and Amy Liu, "Why Rural America Needs Cities," November 30, 2018, Brookings Institution.
Guzman, Gloria, et al., at the United States Census Bureau's Income Statistics and Poverty Statistics Branches, "Poverty Rates Higher, Median Household Income Lower in Rural Counties Than in Urban Areas," December 6, 2018.
Hochschild, Arlie, "Silicon Holler: A Bipartisan Effort to Revitalize the Heartland, One Tech Job at a Time," New York Times, Sunday Review, September 23, 2018.
"How Medicaid Work Requirements Will Harm Rural Residents--and Communities," Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, August 22, 2018.
Jarvie, Jenny, "Black Lung, Grim Future for Younger Miners," Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2018.
Kirby, Brendan, "Alabama's Poorest: Almost Half of All Income in Wilcox County Comes from Uncle Sam," February 13, 2014, Alabama Media Group at al.com.
Neumark, David, "Rebuilding Communities Job Subsidies," 71-121, in Shamburg and Nunn, eds., Place-Based Policies for Shared Economic Growth ((2018)
Volcovici, Valerie, "Awaiting Trump's Coal Comeback, Miners Reject Training," November 1, 2017, at Reuters.com.
Porter, Eduardo, "Abandoned America, The Hard Truths of Trying to Bring Jobs Back to Small Towns," New York Times, Sunday Review, December 16, 2018; and Rachel Harris and Lisa Tarchak, "Small Town America is Dying. How Can We Save It?" (Readers Talk Back), December 23, 2018.--
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