Our troubling economic divide

Jul. 08, 2013 @ 04:33 PM

Michael Walden, the N. C. Cooperative Extension economist, offered a thoughtful assessment of the state’s economy on these pages Monday.

“The economies of the large urban areas have followed a very different path than the economies of the state’s small towns and rural areas,” he wrote. “Perhaps at no time in the state’s history have we seen these economic paths diverge more than in the last quarter century.”

For those of us in Durham and the Triangle area, the state’s economic trajectory in recent decades is on the surface good news. We, like the state’s other major urban areas, have fared relatively well, even during the Great Recession.  Of the 10 counties with the lowest unemployment in the state, four – Orange, Chatham, Wake and Durham – are in the Triangle.

We have been especially fortunate that medicine, scientific research and higher education have been relatively strong throughout the downturn. Even Charlotte, another powerhouse urban economy, has been dinged by the tumult in the financial services industry.

But lest we be too smug in our good fortune relative to the swathes of the state where shuttered textile factories, collapsed tobacco agriculture and fallow furniture plants are the norm, the widening divide spells trouble for the state and for our region.

In our bubble of prosperity and, in Durham and Chapel Hill, relatively liberal political thought, it may be easy to overlook the angst and anger pervading the more economically ravaged parts of the state. 

The difficulty in reversing the economic slide in those areas is helping to fuel policy decisions emanating from Raleigh these days.  We disagree with many of them, but there’s no question the McCrory administration and the Republican majority in the legislature see changing tax policy, regulatory relaxation and a business-friendly truncating of unemployment benefits, among others, as potential solutions to small-town and rural economic distress.

Recently released May unemployment statistics help paint the picture.  In Durham, with nearly 148,000 people in the workforce, about 10,500 were out of work in May  -- a 7.1 percent figure that certainly is uncomfortable.

But Scotland County, with a fewer than one-tenth the potential workers, has 2,100 people out of work – more than a fifth of Durham’s number. Forty-one counties, nearly half, have double-digit unemployment. Of the 10 counties with more than 100,000 people in the workforce, only one – Cumberland (Fayetteville) is among those 41. And its unemployment just grazes 10 percent.

We’re inclined to think the policies the current administration is dismantling in many cases kept the situation from being worse, but that’s a hard case to make. In any event, we’re well on our way to trying some radically different approaches to wrestling with the economic stagnation of much of our state.

The stakes are high. We’ll be watching anxiously to see how it turns out.