Money flows out of, not into, rural counties

Donald Trump’s election has moved the national dialogue to the topic of jobs. This is great news for Robeson County and all of the other places that have not really participated in the tepid economic recovery that has occurred nationally since the recession of 2008-2009.

Nearly 70 percent of Americans are earning less today when adjusted for inflation than they were in 2008, including all state of North Carolina employees — unless they were promoted. I’ve noted in this column that the official measure of unemployment, known as U3, has become a meaningless figure. The more accurate measure of unemployment is known as U6 and it stands at 9.2 percent nationally and probably 15 percent in Robeson County.

Before moving to Robeson County in 2003, I lived in the major metropolitan areas of Miami, Florida, Atlanta, Georgia, and Washington, DC. There really is a great divide between life inside and outside of major metropolitan areas and I am in the small minority who have spent a significant amount of time living in both.

By living in Robeson County I have seen firsthand how money consistently flows from the rural communities to the cities. For example, not counting money donated to churches, about 60 percent of the charitable contributions made by people in Robeson County leave the county. Much of it flows to the Triangle, supporting the universities — and employment — there.

As an employee in Robeson County, whenever I would meet with other people in the state, guess where the meetings would be held — Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, etc. So the money earned in Robeson County got spent on hotel bills, restaurants, gas stations, and stores in those cities rather than in Robeson County.

The major metropolitan areas currently have a virtuous cycle where they attract employment because they have employment. It is difficult for other locations to break into that virtuous cycle, and consequently, they suffer for it.

I remember having these thoughts even as a child. Why does the United Nations, for example, hold meetings in Brussels, Belgium or Geneva, Switzerland? If they really want to help the world, they should be meeting in Nairobi, Kenya or Lima, Peru. If we want to make the economy more equal, I recommend that any meeting involving travel be held in the least-populated area that has the appropriate facilities to host such a meeting.

Most years, 15,000 people and I attend the Academy of Management Conference, so it can never be held in Pembroke or even Raleigh. But Robeson County does have the hotel space and facilities (thanks to Northeast Park) to host the Dixie Youth World Series. I have been to many meetings with others around the state that involved 20, 50, or 100 people. Guess where these meetings are always held? Raleigh, Charlotte, Durham, etc. There is no reason why these meetings can’t be held in Robeson County.

Several years ago, I participated in the Leadership North Carolina program, whose mission is to “inform, develop, and engage committed leaders by broadening their understanding of and involvement in issues and opportunities facing the state.” Fifty leaders are selected each year to participate in this program, which takes place in six locations around the state.

I don’t mean to pick on a program that I love dearly because we could substitute in its place almost any regular meetings that occur. LNC typically always meets only in major metropolitan or tourist locations. One year, I worked with several others in Robeson County and we persuaded LNC to meet in this county. But, that was a one-time exception. If we really want an evenly distributed economic recovery, we have got to stop the flow of dollars that are essentially forced out of counties such as ours.

Eric Dent is Endowed Chair Professor of Ethics at Florida Gulf Coast University.


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