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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

Rural North Carolina’s Loss Is Not The Fault Of One Party

This week, North Carolina Senate minority leader Dan Blue tweeted a column from the Raleigh News & Observer associate opinion editor Ned Barnett with this headline: Rural NC Counties Are Shrinking. Republican Policies Aren’t Helping At All.

The opinion piece noted that rural North Carolina counties lost people from 2010 to 2020.

That coincides with the GOP’s takeover of the General Assembly in 2011 that was cemented a year later when Republicans won veto-proof supermajorities. It wasn’t until 2018 that Democrats gained any real power by breaking those supermajorities, allowing vetoes by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper to stand.

The column goes farther than stating the GOP hasn’t been able to save rural counties. It says the party has made things demonstrably worse: “The shift refutes the low-tax, low-spending policies Republican legislative leaders have slavishly followed since taking control of the General Assembly in 2011. While the movement from rural to urban areas is a national trend, the legislative majority has accelerated the exodus by blocking or neglecting policies and investments that would spur rural job growth.”

But is that true? Or is it an example of misunderstanding causation and correlation?

New Mexico, for instance, has had a Democratic-controlled legislature for 30 years, except for 2015 and 2016 when the GOP controlled the House. It’s alternated between Democratic and Republican governors, and it expanded Medicaid in 2014.

But more than half of the state’s counties lost population from 2010 to 2020.

In Illinois, Democrats have controlled the legislature every year since 2003. They held the trifecta in state government — controlling the governor’s office and both legislative houses — from 2010 to 2014 and again in the last three years. But the state’s rural population has been hemorrhaging population, with 87 of 102 counties losing people since 2010.

That’s not to say Democrats are to blame for those state’s rural areas losing population. But it’s also incorrect to say GOP policies are to blame for rural counties losing people in places like North Carolina, Arkansas, Alabama and Nebraska.

Here is a county-by-county map of population change over the last decade. It’s hard to see how one party is to blame:

population change map 2010-2020
U.S. Census Bureau
Orange areas of the map mean a population loss.

What’s happening, instead, is a tidal wave of social and economic change that’s happening not just in the United States — but across the globe. In Germany. Scandinavia. Italy. China. Japan. Sub-Saharan Africa.

Donald Trump won the presidency on the strength of rural voters, but he did little or nothing to stop the surge to urban areas.

The New York Times in 2018 explored the plight of rural America, asking: “What if nothing really works? Is there really no option but to do nothing and, as some have suggested, return depopulated parts of rural America to the bison?”

The pandemic may be rural America’s best hope.

There is already evidence that the ability to work from home is causing some workers to choose exurban communities one hour or 90 minutes from downtown.

Vermont has offered $10,000 over two years to anyone moving there from out-of-state who already has a job. What if North Carolina did the same for Wadesboro or Rutherfordton?

But would either political party be willing to do that?

The Democratic Party’s strength is based in cities, and now suburbs. Would the party be willing to send resources to rural counties that are unlikely to vote for its candidates?

Republicans, on the other hand, are now a rural party. Offering incentives to bring work-from-home employees would help those small counties. But would the GOP support cash incentives for telecommuters when its historical philosophy has been small government, self-reliance and low taxes?

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.