Connecting state and local government leaders
Better education, they say, is the critical element needed to improve lives in impoverished areas.
WASHINGTON — Four state governors and the U.S. Agriculture secretary spent an hour Monday afternoon discussing the challenging issue of rural poverty and their differing approaches to addressing the problem.
The discussion took place at the annual legislative conference of the National Association of Counties in the nation’s capital, whose agenda is heavy on the topic, and includes a White House Rural Council Poverty Summit on Tuesday’s schedule.
Improving education emerged as a consensus item among the governors on the panel: Democrats Terry McAuliffe of Virginia and Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania and Republicans Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah.
Pre-school education was emphasized by the Democrats, as was improved nutrition for children. Better education is also a priority for the Republicans, and they also stressed the importance of creating a business climate within their states that can attract investment and jobs.
Introducing the session, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who served as Iowa’s Democratic governor for eight years, observed that rural counties have been persistently poor for many years.
A study by the Population Reference Bureau a few years back found that “most of the counties with high child poverty rates are located in rural America. Of the 100 counties with the highest child poverty rates in 2005, 95 are rural counties. All 100 counties have child poverty rates above 40 percent, more than twice the national rate of 18.5 percent in 2005.”
Vilsack said he would like to see at least 100 counties accept the “rural impact challenge” the White House rural council has devised to encourage strategic planning for cooperative efforts by state, local and federal agencies to deal with rural poverty.
Gov. Haslam said that while Tennessee’s economy is strong rural counties are struggling. He has appointed a rural development task force that will focus on techniques for economic development, site development for facilities that might want to locate in rural areas, and tourism, which he characterized as “one of our best hopes.”
He has, as does McAuliffe, a “Children’s Cabinet” comprised of state agencies dealing with issues impacting child welfare.
But, “at the end of the day,” the real issue is education, Haslam said.
All jobs 10 years hence will require education beyond high school, he said, while only 15 percent of workers in rural Tennessee have studied beyond 12th grade. In a program dubbed the Tennessee Promise, the state has offered free community college to qualifying students. To get students ready, Haslam has helped establish a nonprofit “Book from Birth” program that offers young mothers a book a month for their children if they enroll.
McAuliffe spoke for a state whose need for economic diversification has been in the spotlight since the Defense Department’s retrenchment began a few years back. While losing defense sector jobs, the state has also suffered from the decline of important coal, textile and furniture industries, many in rural areas.
McAuliffe talked about modernizing Virginia’s K-12 program, and about investing $9 million to ensure that children “don’t go to school hungry.” And, to a round of applause from the county officials, he said that broadband expansion is needed to help rural communities connect with the larger world.
Herbert said his state’s emphasis on free markets had produced an economy that’s outperforming the national average. Child poverty in Utah, he said, is at 13.3 percent, just half the national average of 27 percent.
He told a story about a family that had pulled itself out of poverty with an assist by the state to finance a four-month training program for the father of three children. The father completed the course, secured a $35,000-a-year job, and was continuing to study every night with his children, who had been ready “to flunk out.”
So now, Herbert said, from a downward spiral, “guess what, they are on a spiral upward.” His advice to people in poverty: “Get a good education, get a job, get married, and have children—in that order.”
Wolf has emphasized “food security” as a prerequisite for the health and educational prospects of children in rural areas of Pennsylvania. Good education and “infrastructure to connect rural people with the rest of the world” are also essential, he said.
In response to a question from Vilsack, McAuliffe spoke movingly about the huge swath of Virginia dubbed the “rural horseshoe,” stretching from the Delmarva Peninsula to the south and then north toward Appalachia. The horseshoe is home to 8.4 million people, of whom 2.5 million do not have a high school degree, he said. “It is exceedingly hard to bring businesses into areas that don’t have the workforces they require,” he said. “So we have to focus on education. It is going to take a long time.”
At an earlier session, officials from rural, coal-dependent counties in Colorado and Kentucky described the desperation afflicting workers who have been losing their jobs in the mines and in large coal-fired plants.
Frank Moe, a commissioner of Moffat County, Colorado, and Dan Mosely, judge executive in Harlan County, Kentucky, talked about efforts to promote tourism and economic development, but focused mainly on small procedural steps—new offices and cooperative forums within their governments.
They had just a few modest results to report. But one, in Harlan County, was concrete evidence of what Vilsack had described as a promising development: Increased interest by technology companies in repatriating jobs they’d previously outsourced. Mosely said his county was anticipating a new Teleworks USA hub that could employ 120 people, some working from their homes, to service companies like Humana, Sony and U-Haul.
And at the coal session, a somber note was struck by an official from rural Greene County in Pennsylvania. Tourism, economic development and other efforts, will “not make up for what you have lost,” he said. “We have tried them, and they have not worked. Miners, and I was one, average $80,000 to $100,000 a year, and they will not make anywhere near that now.” The economic challenge, he said, “is one that should have been looked at many years ago.”
Timothy B. Clark is Editor at Large at Government Executive’s Route Fifty. News Editor Dave Nyczepir contributed to this report.