Former Vice President Joe Biden has released “The Biden Plan For Rural America.” Given where Roanoke sits — surrounded by rural areas — we have a vested interest in the rural economy and so have made it a point to critique what the presidential candidates have to say about it.
We know what President Trump’s strategy for rural America is: He basically doesn’t have one, other than to hope that an improving national economy helps rural America, too. Whether you consider this Reaganesque “trickle-down” economics or a more Rooseveltian “rising tide lifts all boats” doesn’t really matter. The problem is that it doesn’t address one of the fundamental economic forces in the land — what economists have dubbed “the great divergence” that is clustering new economy jobs in a relative handful of metro areas.
Two statistics that we keep coming back to:
n Over a 20-year-span — from 1995 to 2015 — the United States gained jobs. Yet much of that job growth was concentrated in a handful of favored places: Two-thirds of the counties in the country lost jobs. That trend is accelerating, too.
n In 2012, almost 58 percent of the nation’s venture capital went to just five “superstar” metro areas — San Francisco, New York, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles, in that order. By 2017, that figure was close to 81 percent. The rich really are getting richer.
Trump’s only real plan isn’t his, but the brainchild of Sen. Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, who made sure the 2017 tax overhaul created 8,700 “opportunity zones” around the country — census tracts where there are certain tax breaks for businesses. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross talked these up during his recent visit to Roanoke and predicted businesses will soon be rushing to create jobs there. These opportunity zones are a good idea, but they face two stark realities. First, we’ve tried opportunity zones in the past — both Republicans and Democrats have championed them — and their results have been mixed, at best. Second, much of the workforce in rural America lacks the skills that the new economy is demanding. Amazon isn’t going to locate in Clintwood — or even Roanoke — simply because there’s a tax break available. Instead, well, you see where it went. We’re not the only ones skeptical about how much good these opportunity zones will do. Forbes magazine — not exactly a socialist organ — ran a long story last year that can be summed up by the headline: “Opportunity zones may help investors and syndicators more than distressed communities.”
Bottom line: Trump doesn’t really have a plan for rural America. Spoiler alert: Neither do any of the Democrats, with one exception. The only candidate we’ve heard addressing this “great divergence” is one you’ve never heard of — and likely never will. That’s former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, who doesn’t even register in the polls. Only a handful of the other candidates have even bothered to release “plans” for rural America — the quotes are intentional because these are more campaign documents that actual policy papers. They haven’t addressed it, either. Not even Elizabeth Warren, who brags about having plan after plan, has any plan for the rural economy. She has one for agriculture — and agriculture is rural, but rural America is about a lot more than farming. Bernie Sanders released a plan for “Revitalizing Rural America.” We looked at it in May and found it pretty thin — mostly a collection of Sanders’ standard talking points re-written to make them sound rural. Now comes Biden and his rural plan is every bit as unimpressive as Sanders’ is. What we have here is rare bipartisan agreement: Nobody really has a plan for how to counteract “the great divergence” — so none of them even bother to talk about it (except for the aforementioned Delaney. We’ll come back to him on another day).
Biden’s plan talks a lot about agriculture. To be fair, all these candidates are looking through the prism of the Iowa caucuses, so the emphasis on agriculture is understandable. But in much of Appalachia, agriculture is only a marginal economic activity. We’re skipping ahead to the rest of the “plan” — and not finding much there, either. Biden wants to push wind and solar energy, both good things for the environment and, as renewables become cheaper, for the economy, as well. (This section also has a unique impact in Iowa, because that state now generates nearly 37% of its power from wind, more than anywhere else in the U.S.). That, of course, means fewer fossil fuels — which raises the question of what will become to those communities whose economies were once based on coal.
We in Southwest Virginia definitely have an interest in that. Biden has something to say about that; just not very much: “Fulfill our obligation to workers and communities who powered our industrial revolution and subsequent decades of economic growth. This is support they’ve earned for fueling our country’s industrial revolution and decades of economic growth. We’re not going to leave any workers or communities behind.” And what exactly does all that mean? Unless there’s a plan to build a new economy in Appalachia, this is simply blather and should be called out as such. Biden calls for more funding for rural broadband — so does everybody, in both parties. He wants to create a White House “strike force” to help rural communities “unlock federal resources.” If there are resources going unused, then they certainly ought to be used but this also seems the standard (and not very creative) Democratic response: More federal funding. Ultimately, though, what rural America needs is more private investment. How would Biden encourage that? He talks about how he will “dramatically expand funding for Community Development Financial Institutions” — which do play an important role. But that still doesn’t address the big trends that are reshaping our economy in ways that put rural America at a disadvantage.
Of all the Democratic candidates, Biden still has the most plausible path to 270 electoral votes in the general election — although his path to getting the Democratic nomination is becoming to appear less plausible. For those who want to make sure the person taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2021 is someone other than Trump, Biden may still be the safest bet. But there’s no reason to think he’s given any thought whatsoever to how to build a new economy in rural America. Then again, neither has Trump nor any of the other likely Democratic nominees.