The New York-born president looked out at the nation and didn’t like what he saw.
He saw two very different Americas that were increasingly growing apart — a prosperous urban America where the economy was driven by fantastical new technologies, and a rural America that was being passed over by this emerging new economy.
2018? No. 1908. The president then was Theodore Roosevelt, who envisioned himself a man of action (and often was). Roosevelt feared that the economic gap opening between the two parts of the country was not a healthy one. So he did what politicians often do: He appointed a blue-ribbon commission to study the matter.
Roosevelt’s commission — which included Henry Wallace, a future Democratic vice president — fanned out across the country to study the economy of rural America. It held 30 public hearings and produced a report, the main recommendations of which were put into action. (The most famous of those at the time was the creation of the agricultural extension service).
Roosevelt is back in the news, thanks to a recent New York Times article that looked at how major cities in the United States are increasingly disconnected from the rest of the country. Once cities were industrial centers that bought their raw materials from the countryside, so the prosperity of one at least trickled down to the other. In today’s so-called knowledge economy, that connection is severed. High-tech capitals such as Seattle, Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas may have lots of economic connections with each other, but they’re not buying raw materials from rural America — because often there are no raw materials, only ideas.
That has led some commentators to propose that rural America simply be depopulated, or at least abandoned to its fate. If rural areas aren’t doing well economically, wrote commentators for the conservative National Review and the libertarian magazine Reason, then people should simply move. Even President Trump said as much in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: “I’m going to start explaining to people when you have an area that just isn’t working — like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt — and then you’ll have another area 500 miles away where you can’t — you can’t get people, I’m going to explain you can leave.”
Others, though, have pushed back. Henry Grabar of Slate opened the history books and offered Roosevelt’s active interest in the fate of rural America as a salient contrast to that of Trump. “Aside from rolling back environmental laws and promoting scattered subsidy deals (Carrier, Foxconn), Donald Trump hasn’t showed much interest in what ails the places that helped bring him to power,” Grabar writes. That’s true. Few places in the country voted more heavily for Trump than Appalachia, yet look how he has “rewarded” Appalachia. He proposed to eliminate virtually all the federal agencies charged with trying to build a new economy there, most notably the Appalachian Regional Commission. He proposed to eliminate other agencies that deal more broadly with rural economic development. What, exactly, is the plan to make rural America great again? There isn’t one. Trump supporters would say it’s a thriving national economy — except we have years of experience to show that, even in good times, economic growth is clustering in major metros and not always benefitting rural areas. The problem with the current economy is that this bifurcation is accelerating. In 2010, 48 percent of the jobs being created in the country were in cities with more than one million people. In the six years that followed, that figure swelled to 73 percent. Only 6 percent of the nation’s new jobs were created in metro areas less than 250,000 (the Roanoke Valley weighs in at 252,672) and only 3 percent in “non-metro” areas. So what’s wrong with Trump’s conclusion that people simply move? Let’s set aside any moral outrage about that being a defeatist attitude. Do we really make America great by giving up on the country outside the major metros? Are we really District 12 from “The Hunger Games”?
Instead, let’s focus on the practicalities. The new economy being created prizes skills to a degree that the economy never has have before. Even manufacturing jobs today aren’t simply manufacturing jobs. Increasingly, they are “advanced manufacturing” jobs that require some kind of industry-recognized credential, such as those awarded by community colleges. A simple high school diploma often just doesn’t cut it anymore.
Rural America, though, suffers from a huge skills gap. A college education isn’t the only measure of skills, but it’s a useful metric nonetheless. The GO Virginia economic development councils recently issued a series of insightful reports on different parts of Virginia. In Southside Virginia, only 13.5 percent of adults over 25 have a college degree. In Southwest Virginia, it’s just under 14 percent. In the New River-to-Lynchburg area, it’s 25 percent. In Northern Virginia, though, that figure is 52 percent. If you’re a company that depends on a college-educated workforce, where would you locate? That’s a question that, unfortunately, answers itself. Or flip that around to the original question: Sure, those 13.9 percent of Southwest Virginia workers with a college degree could pack up and move — and probably find a job in some urban metroplex. But what about remaining 86.1 percent? Re-locating unskilled workers from Southside and Southwest Virginia to Northern Virginia doesn’t really fix the underlying problem. An unskilled worker is out of luck anywhere.
We see some politicians — on both the left and right — propose various tax breaks as an incentive for companies to locate in rural areas. Those are likely good ideas; we’ll take whatever help is available. But tax breaks are (relatively) easy to pass; fixing the skills gap is a much harder task. This is where we must come back to Roosevelt. His Commission on Country Life arguably led to an improved economy in rural America at the time. One of the more indirect results of Roosevelt’s commission was a movement to improve education in rural areas by consolidating one-room schoolhouses and hiring college-trained teachers. A modern-day Roosevelt commission would undoubtedly come back with a contemporary version of that education proposal, perhaps with a lot more worker training programs and free community college. What would that look like? How much would it cost? And why isn’t Trump tweeting about that?