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Editorial: Don't reward politicians who avoid the hard questions about the economy

Editorial: Don't reward politicians who avoid the hard questions about the economy

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There is one topic we write about more than any other — the economy in rural Virginia and in rural America at large.

The dominant trend in much of Southside and Southwest Virginia is population decline, much of that tied to the demise of traditional employers — and much of that tied to the overall bifurcation of the economy as the information-age economy rewards high-tech metro areas and punishes rural areas without a deep talent pool of workers with in-demand skills.

We don’t mean this harshly, but these are the facts that any realistic appraisal of the economy of those regions has to deal with: Southside and Southwest have some of the poorest counties and least-educated counties in the country.

The latter makes it hard to change the former; these are not conditions conducive to economic growth in the modern economy.

Only 15.5% of working-age adults in Southside and Southwest have a college degree. (In Franklin County, the figure is 20.7%. By contrast, the statewide figure is 38.7%.

In parts of Northern Virginia, the figure is more than 70%, with Falls Church hitting 78.1%, one of many reasons why Amazon’s HQ2 is going to Arlington (and not the Summit View business park).

Now, here’s a figure that may blow your mind: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47.9% of the immigrants who arrived in the U.S. over the past decade have a college degree.

That’s why the communities that are doing the best job at attracting immigrants are usually doing better economically than those that aren’t.

That’s why we often make the case that rural areas — especially those losing population — should be clamoring for more immigration, not less. Those communities need both more people, and more skilled workers. But we digress (only slightly, though).

This year is, as you may have noticed, an election year. In the 9th Congressional District, which covers Southwest Virginia, Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, is unopposed.

However, in the 5th District, which covers much of Southside, there’s an open seat, with a contest between Republican Bob Good, a former Campbell County supervisor and Liberty University athletics administrator, and Democrat Cameron Webb, a doctor in Charlottesville.

In August, many Lee Enterprises newspapers published an editorial posing four questions for Good and Webb:

1. What role, if any, do you see yourself playing in building a new economy for Southside Virginia?

2. Have either of you read the report on the Southside economy from the GO Virginia economic development board?

3. Is there anything you’re proposing that would dramatically raise educational levels in Southside Virginia?

4. How would you reverse the region’s population decline?

At the time, we challenged the candidates to address those issues and offered them space on our opinion pages to do so.

We have yet to hear from Good. We did hear from Webb, though, and you’ll see his responses on the opposite page (or, if you’re reading online, under the “columnists” section). You can judge for yourself what Good’s non-response says about his interest in these issues and whether Webb’s responses are the right ones. (The offer to Good still stands, by the way).

However, even if Good doesn’t respond, and even if you deem Webb’s answers insufficient, here’s the thing: These problems aren’t going away. Political campaigns can try to distract us with whatever the hot-button issue of the day might be, but none of those issues that animate cable news talking heads in their studios in Washington or wherever will change these facts on the ground in rural Virginia — counties are losing population as young adults (and not always young adults) move away to seek job opportunities elsewhere. So what will? It’s not as if nothing is happening.

For the past two decades, Virginia’s had a special panel devoted specifically to building a new economy in the former tobacco-growing counties of Southside and Southwest Virginia — the oft-maligned Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, aka, the “tobacco commission.”

The tobacco commission has done a lot of good work that it often doesn’t get credit for — laying more than 3,000 miles of backbone fiber to extend broadband to rural areas, for instance. Nobody else was doing that.

Think of how far behind Southside and Southwest would be if that fiber weren’t in the ground.

However, even if every dollar of the commission’s original $1 billion endowment had been perfectly spent, and all those investments had come to full flower, nobody is under any illusion that Southside and Southwest today would be a miniature Silicon Valleys.

The tobacco commission serves to underscore the enormity of the task of building a new economy in rural areas.

Our goal is to prod, cajole, encourage and otherwise force politicians to talk about these issues — instead of whatever bumper sticker slogan their consultants have concocted for them. We’re thrilled to see that Webb has responded to this challenge and disappointed that Good — so far — has not.

However, the solutions here do not necessarily fit neatly into conventional left/right pigeonholes, which may be one reason why some politicians avoid them. It’s much easier to recite a well-practiced sound bite on — pick the issue, doesn’t matter — than engage in a more complex discussion about the nature of the new economy taking shape in the country and the world. Yet that’s exactly what is needed.

Earlier this year, we saw hundreds of people pack the meeting rooms of their local governing bodies to demand they pass resolutions against the new gun laws contemplated by (and eventually passed by) the General Assembly.

We’ve seen smaller but just as passionate arguments over what to do about Confederate statues. Guns and statues affect some people. But the economy affects everyone.

Why don’t we see the same level of engagement there? Why aren’t voters demanding their politicians take stronger action to change the region’s economic trajectory?

At some point, perhaps we should stop blaming Washington and Richmond, stop blaming Mexico and China, stop blaming Wall Street and “big business,” stop blaming immigrants and refugees, and start blaming ourselves.

We didn’t create the economic conditions that are punishing rural Virginia but every time we reward politicians who aren’t addressing them, we’re complicit in accepting them.

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