BRIGHT Futures Act applies urban values to rural communities
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “rural-urban divide,” a conversation that’s not new to anyone in North Carolina public policy. And with good reason. North Carolina is a large and rapidly growing state. We have growing urban centers where people are moving by the thousands from all over the country, and indeed the world.
But we also have large rural areas, where life looks very different. About 4 million North Carolinians, just more than 40 percent of the population, live in counties classified as rural. That gives us the second-largest rural population in the country. Some of those areas have struggled in recent years, particularly with the loss of manufacturing jobs.
I hear public policy wonks and politicians constantly discussing how we should address this “rural-urban divide,” whether in the context of employment, educational opportunities, health care, or technology. And every time, it makes me a little bit uncomfortable.
You see, I grew up in rural North Carolina. In 1980, my parents chose to move from Boston to the small town where I was born. They were both well-educated, had each traveled half-way across the country for college, and then moved again for grad school. Mom was a small town North Carolinian, and Dad was a big-city West Coaster. But when it came time to settle down, they chose to move back to the little town where Mom grew up.
They didn’t do that because they were ignorant of the urban opportunities they were leaving behind. They didn’t do it because they had naïve illusions about rural life. They knew the move would mean that we’d have to drive to access arts and museums and a variety of educational opportunities. They knew they’d have to choose among a smaller number of employers. They knew my sister and I would have fewer course options in high school.
But they also knew that we’d grow up close to our grandparents. They knew they’d have short commutes, and probably more flexible working arrangements. They knew they’d know our teachers and would be able to have their voice heard at the local school board. They knew we’d have opportunities to play sports in high school and do community theater, even if we had no talent (which it turned out we didn’t). On balance, my parents thought it was a pretty good deal.
As an adult, I’ve chosen to live in cities. But that’s key. It’s what I choose. Some friends from high school have chosen differently and still live in small towns or on the family farm. Every time people start talking about the “rural-urban divide,” I think about my own parents and friends who made deliberate, informed decisions to live in rural North Carolina.
I think that most people living in rural North Carolina wouldn’t have it any other way. They don’t want to live in Raleigh or Charlotte or Greensboro. They wouldn’t trade the bigger house on the larger lot in a more rural area. They don’t want the pace and stress of urban life. It doesn’t bother them that they’re missing out on some of the opportunities they would have in a larger city. They actually do recognize that there are more jobs, a wider variety of educational opportunities, faster internet speeds, and better health care in bigger cities. They know they may never have access to Amazon’s PrimeNow service, and that’s OK with them. Instead, they weigh up the pros and cons and decide that they’d rather have small towns or acres of farmland or amazing mountain views. That’s a reasonable and valid decision.
This has all been particularly on my mind as I’ve looked at House Bill 68, the BRIGHT Futures Act. H.B. 68 is all about getting high-speed internet to rural communities because of the various opportunities that it brings — education, job training, telemedicine, banking, business applications, etc. That all sounds fair enough, but most areas already have access if they want to pay for it. It costs more than in cities, but other things cost less. It’s all part of the trade-off of rural versus urban.
I wonder if legislators, who spend a lot of time in Raleigh, are really driven by the desires of the people in their districts, or if they’re actually falling into the all-too-common trap of applying urban values to rural communities? There’s a risk that, in an effort to bring opportunity, we take on a paternalistic attitude, asserting that we know what people really value, or at least what they should value.
The truth is that people reveal their values through the choices they make and the ways they spend their money. Let’s respect the choices of rural North Carolinians and not insist on “fixing” problems that may not even really exist.
Julie Tisdale is city and county policy analyst for the John Locke Foundation.