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Do we need a Cabinet secretary for rural Virginia? This law review article says we do.

Rural Virginia needs many things.

It needs jobs.

It needs broadband.

It needs a more skilled workforce to attract those jobs.

But maybe most of all, what it needs is more attention from Richmond.

That’s the conclusion of a recent paper published in the University of Richmond Law Review that perhaps ought to be required reading for all those who wish to be lawmakers come the next General Assembly session. Those from rural Virginia might learn something; those from other parts of Virginia might learn a lot more. 

Antonella Nicholas and Andrew Block. Courtesy of the University of Virginia.

The paper is titled “Those Who Need the Most Get the Least: The Challenge of and Opportunity for Helping Rural Virginia,” and it was authored by Andrew Block and Antonella Nicholas. Block is an associate professor of law and director of the State and Local Government Policy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law; Nicholas is a third-year law student there. If Block’s name sounds familiar to some of you, it may be because he was vice chair of Gov. Ralph Northam’s Commission to Examine Racial Inequity and Economic Inequality in Virginia Law.

Much of this paper deals with economic inequality, as well. That won’t come as any surprise to those of us living in rural Virginia, but the paper still serves a valuable purpose by pulling together all the most recent data in one place. 

Disclosure: Twelve of the 311 citations are stories published in Cardinal News, evidence of how we’re helping to focus more attention on Southwest and Southside Virginia. If you’d like to help us keep doing that, and even expand our coverage, you can help by making a tax-deductible donation.

Before we get to the paper’s main recommendation, let’s look at some of the data that it marshalls. 

We’re sick and dying

OK, not to be grim or anything, but eventually we all die. But those in rural Virginia die sooner than anyone else in the state. “Rural mortality is about 30% higher than mortality rates in urban areas,” Block and Nicholas write. “People in rural areas and those living in poverty are also more likely to lack health insurance, to have underlying conditions, and to have limited access to healthcare facilities.” Gosh, you think any of those things might be connected?

Here are some more stats: “In 2017, there were 20.6 avoidable hospitalizations per 1,000 residents in rural areas of Virginia,” Block and Nicholas write. “There were 12.2 avoidable hospitalizations for non-rural residents and even fewer for residents in Northern Virginia, where avoidable hospitalizations were just 6.8 per 1,000 residents.” Put another way, the rate of avoidable hospitalizations in rural Virginia is about three times what it is in Northern Virginia. Let me use that as the jumping-off point for another plug: There’s also no full-time health care reporter on this side of the state. We’re working on changing that and will have more to say on that front soon. Meanwhile, if you think that this is an important reporting position to have in a part of the state with so much avoidable sickness, or that our overall reporting on rural issues is important, you can help support Cardinal by making a donation. Now back to the law review article.

Rural often equals poverty

That’s not the part we like to talk about, but who among us likes to talk about uncomfortable things? 

Poverty is higher in rural Virginia than in urban Virginia. In our metro areas, the poverty rate is 8.5%. In rural areas, it’s 14.9%, not quite twice as high. In much of Southwest and Southside Virginia, though, the rates are higher, typically between 14% and 19% — except in some places where it’s even higher. In Lee County, 26% of the population is below the poverty line, the report says. That’s the highest in the state if you factor out college communities, such as Radford, where income data gets skewed in small populations with lots of students. (By contrast, in Petersburg, where Gov. Glenn Youngkin has devoted a lot of resources, it’s 21.3%, quite high but still lower than Dickenson County at 22.0% and Prince Edward County at 23.6% and Buchanan County at 23.7%.)

Rural Virginia isn’t generating jobs

Youngkin wants to see more jobs created in Virginia. The reality is that any Virginia governor wants to see more jobs created in Virginia. But rural Virginia’s not helping. “In a stark illustration of urban Virginia’s economic dominance, Virginia’s metropolitan areas account for all of the state’s job growth over the last two decades,” Block and Nicholas write. “Rural areas did not contribute to the growth of jobs or industry because rural markets never recovered from the Great Recession.”

What jobs we do have tend to be lower-wage than those elsewhere. Again, not surprising, but still a fact. The not-so-happy summation: “Faced with a low-income, low-wage, aging, and shrinking rural population, as well as declining rural economic growth, policymakers will need to be strategic and thoughtful when devising ways to support economic development in these areas,” Block and Nicholas write.

Obviously this is not a chamber of commerce promotional brochure. 

On the plus side: Migration trends are starting to change.

The article, though, does cite some data we’ve reported previously: Contrary to popular belief, rural Virginia is not losing young adults at a higher rate than other places. In some cases rural areas do a better job than some urban areas of holding onto their young adults, although that may also be a factor of a smaller percentage going off to college. Once high school graduates from rural schools go off to college, it’s hard to get them back even if they want to come. “Many rural-raised college graduates have too much debt to stay in rural Virginia,” Block and Nicholas write. The jobs here, if they exist, just don’t pay enough. 

There are some positive signs: The latest census data shows that since 2020, we’ve seen more people moving into many (though not all) rural areas than are moving out. Still, populations decline because deaths outnumber both births and that small net in-migration. Our aging demographics catch up with us.  (You can find more of my coverage of Virginia’s demographics here.)

Potential solutions

So just what “strategic and thoughtful” things should we be doing to reverse some of these unhappy trends?

That’s the harder part. Block and Nicholas lay out some solutions. Some are obvious ones, such as universal broadband. Others are ones that have failed in the General Assembly so far, such as allowing localities to raise local sales taxes to generate more revenue for schools. I’ll skip over those to focus on other proposals:

1. Talent attraction programs: Block and Nicholas call favorable attention to the Tobacco Commission’s “talent attraction program,” where the commission pays off student loans for people in certain fields to move into Tobacco Commission territory in Southwest and Southside. The main problem with this program, the writers says: It’s not big enough. The last figures cited show about 200 people who have moved in as part of the program. 

The writers suggest we need to think bigger. “Reimagining programs that address population decline in Virginia may require policymakers to explore successful programs in other states,” Block and Nicholas say. “For example, Virginia may consider replicating initiatives such as Ascend West Virginia, which is a program that pays remote workers to move to West Virginia.” That program has attracted remote workers to West Virginia, with an average annual salary of $125,937; that’s nearly four times the median household income in Dickenson County. That West Virginia program is small, though, too. (Randy Walker wrote about this program for Cardinal earlier this year.) Is there any appetite in Virginia for trying this on a larger scale? Or a pilot program focused on one particularly hard-hit community? If so, one logical place to try it would be Buchanan County, which, on a percentage basis, has seen the greatest loss of population over the past four decades. 

2. Build up the outdoors economy. We’ve seen the Roanoke Valley pivot over the past decade or so to emphasize its outdoors vibe. So have other parts of the region — I’m thinking of the Spearhead Trails in Southwest Virginia, for instance. Block and Nicholas talk up the Creeper Trail and what it’s done for Abingdon and Damascus. The writers summon up these stats: “While Virginia’s outdoor recreation capacity is similar to other states on the East Coast, Virginia’s outdoor economy constitutes a lesser percentage of Virginia’s GDP. For example, Virginia’s outdoor economy accounts for only 1.7% of the Commonwealth’s total economy; in Florida it accounts for 4.4% and in Vermont, 5.2%. Virginia also lags behind several of its neighbors, although not by as much. West Virginia’s outdoor economy accounts for 1.9% of its total economy. In North Carolina, Tennessee, and South Carolina, the outdoor industry accounts for 2.0%, 2.4% and 2.9% of their respective economies.” Those numbers suggest that Virginia has some room to grow.

3. Create a state secretary of rural Virginia. This is the headline proposal. The authors didn’t give the position a name, but this is what they meant when they wrote that the state should “create a high-level cabinet position with interagency authority to oversee rural affairs and development. Only a high-level position like this, with the authority to unify and direct efforts to improve the lives of rural Virginians, will have the ability to fully and comprehensively help rural communities in a way that they both need and deserve.” 

We’re not too far away from the 2025 governor’s race to start posing questions. Republicans are the strongest in rural Virginia but the most averse to bureaucracy. Democrats are the weakest in rural Virginia but more prone to turn to government for solutions. Will we see someone propose this? And would it matter if they did? 

You can find the full law review article here.

What’s with Del. Walker and the cucumbers?

Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, shows off some of the bounty from his garden. Photo by Dwayne Yancey
Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, shows off some of the bounty from his garden. Photo by Dwayne Yancey.

Earlier this week, I attended a special meeting of Lynchburg Republicans where the city’s GOP committee rescinded a censure of Vice Mayor Chris Faraldi. I wrote about that in this column. I also found Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg, giving away cucumbers. I write more about that, as well as a bill from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, that would make permanent a temporary tax provision for speedways, in this week’s edition of West of the Capital, our weekly political newsletter. It goes out on Friday afternoon. You can sign up for it here.

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