Regular readers know that when politicians don’t pay attention to rural Virginia, we flog them like the proverbial rented mule. Sometimes, though, we offer some editorial treats.
So today, we stand at the ready, whip in one hand and a box of sugar cubes in the other, as we look at one of the first Democratic presidential candidates to offer up a plan grandly titled “Revitalizing Rural America.” Which will it be?
Before we answer that — elections ultimately are binary choices — we must point out what President Trump’s economic plan for rural America is: He doesn’t have one.
To be fair, a robust economy helps everybody, rural and non-rural alike, and right now Trump benefits politically from a robust economy. But looking at whether the jobs report is up or down is a very short-term way of looking at the economy — you might even say a Wall Street way. Sometimes the economy goes up, sometimes it goes down. We need to be able to look beyond that at much larger, long-term, trends and there the results aren’t so happy.
First, we see a growing divergence between metro areas and the rest of the country — and not all metro areas, either. 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. We don’t see either party talking about that.
Second, it’s increasingly clear that one of the fundamental challenges facing rural America is that the labor pool isn’t prepared for the new economy. The information age demands a better-educated workforce — which doesn’t always mean a college degree, but does mean something beyond high school. The State Council for Higher Education in Virginia reported last year that an astounding 99 percent of the jobs in the state since the recession have gone to workers with more than a high school diploma.
Rural America may not need to replicate, say, Arlington, where 71 percent of working-age adults have a college degree. But in most rural communities in Virginia, fewer than 20 percent of the working-age adults have college degrees, which puts them on the same level as — are you ready for this? — Mexico. To make America great again, we’ll need more people getting some kind of post-secondary education or training, but that’s not a priority for Trump. Ironically, it is a priority for some other Republicans. The Republican-led state government of Tennessee, for instance, has tried to make community college free because Tennessee sees that as an economic development imperative. It’s not just certain liberal Democrats who are talking about “free college.”
Trump, though, is more content to keep rural voters whipped up with a culture war frenzy while he quietly tries to eliminate the programs and agencies most involved in trying to create a new economy in rural America.
That brings us to one of the Democratic candidates who has done what few other Democrats are willing to do these days — talk about rural America. Of course, the fact that Iowa is the first on the 2020 caucus-and-primary schedule does help concentrate candidates’ attention, at least for awhile. And that brings us to Bernie Sanders, who last week announced what the website Politico called a “sweeping” plan. Perhaps it is, but most of it doesn’t apply directly to us. Two-thirds of it deals with agriculture. We all ought to have an interest in agriculture policy. We do like to eat, after all. However, much of Sanders’ plan is written with Midwestern agriculture in mind. That’s not what we have here. Plus, rural America is a lot more than agriculture. There’s not a lot here that speaks directly to Southwest and Southside Virginia. (We also can’t help but point out that one plank — Sanders’ support for farmers’ “right to repair” their farm equipment without going through an authorized dealer – is identical to one that Republican Ed Gillespie had in his 2017 campaign for governor. Either Gillespie was a secret socialist, or Sanders may not be as much of a Red as Republicans would like to make him out to be.)
That brings us to the third and final part of Sanders’ plan, which does speak more broadly to rural communities that aren’t in Iowa. How’s it rate?
Much of it is boilerplate: Sanders supports rural broadband. Umm, so does everybody. Until there’s a dollar figure attached, this doesn’t really distinguish him.
Much of the plan simply restates Sanders’ basic platform points, just re-written to make them sound rural. Universal child care. A $15 per hour minimum wage. Whatever you think of those policies, they are not particularly rural. Likewise, Sanders’ support for “free higher education” and to “substantially end the burden of the outrageous levels of student debt” is also standard Democratic boilerplate. However, doing either of those things would have a unique — and positive — impact on rural communities. As we’ve seen, they need better-educated workers. Still, it’s hard to call that a fully thought-out rural agenda. How would Sanders get more working-age adults into credentials programs through community colleges? Silence.
Some of the parts that are more specifically rural are simply weightless blather: “Start investing in small businesses in rural areas and stop handing out tax breaks to big corporations.” Great. But who will be doing that investment? Sanders the democratic socialist doesn’t sound very convincing as a venture capitalist because this bullet point has no follow-up details whatsoever.
He does get our attention with a reference to how he wants to “start building rural schools that can access and utilize distance learning opportunities.” That sounds vaguely like the proposal by state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, for Virginia to issue bonds to pay for modernizing schools — many of which are in rural areas. Stanley, though, explained how he’d pay for his plan; Sanders does not. Sanders laments that many rural schools are closing, but blames “state laws” instead of the real problem: The marketplace. People are moving out of many rural areas to seek jobs elsewhere. Rural Virginia (probably rural America, too) needs new school buildings, but ultimately it needs a new economy. Sanders doesn’t really explain what will create that. Maybe no one can.
So which shall it be for Sanders: The whip or the sugar cubes? Or should he simply be sent back to pasture to fatten up what’s really too thin to be called a “plan”?