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Matthew Stokes: The Vitality Index

By MATTHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

We are in a political season (when aren’t we these days?) and so it’s natural for most commentary and punditry to revolve around what factors could swing the next election one way or the other. 

In a June column in the New York Times, Will Wilkinson made note of some areas were Republicans had given a lot of political ground, wondering if President Trump has given Democrats an opening in Red America.  Wilkinson’s argument is straight-forward. Many of the areas that went for Donald Trump in 2016 are suffering from depleted human resources, and Republican policies aren’t being responsive to this problem. 

Let’s stop here and acknowledge some political common sense. Donald Trump isn’t likely to cede any ground in rural, red areas in 2020 and Democrats aren’t likely to gain ground there, either. We are a nation that has largely picked its sides and, barring some extraordinary event, that’s not going to change over the next year. 

However, Wilkinson’s points are really instructive going forward in the post-Trump era, and his suggestions could apply for politicians of either party. At the moment, neither the GOP nor any of the major Democrat candidates for the White House are making the issue of rural decline a major part of their platforms, mostly sticking to ideological issues. But in the future, this could be a game-changer. 

Wilkinson points to The Hamilton Project, a significant initiative by the Brookings Institution, a prominent center-left think tank. The project examines the vitality index of every county in America, weighing factors including median household income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, life expectancy, house vacancy rate, and prime-age unemployment to population ratio. Wilkinson notes that many of the counties that shifted hard in support of Donald Trump had a far lower vitality index, but current Republican parties seem to do little to alleviate these problems. Unfortunately, and at this point, unsurprisingly, almost every county in Alabama ranks low on this vitality index, as well.

Wilkinson describes a scenario that should be familiar to policy makers. Rural areas lose industry for a variety of reasons and, in time, those rural residents with college degrees get tired of driving to bigger cities for health-care, shopping, education, and entertainment. When those folks leave, they take with them their “money, civic energy, and organizational know-how.” Put crudely, this phenomenon causes many of our rural areas to suffer from a significant brain drain. A look at the state of Alabama on the Hamilton Project’s interactive map reveals strong vitality numbers in Autauga, Baldwin, Madison, and Shelby counties while the rest of the state flounders from bad to worse. The problem is that too many of our state’s best and brightest are increasingly congregating in intense clusters, leaving rural and even suburban areas bereft of the human capital that could enrich them. While this phenomenon has been occurring nationwide, it is cold comfort to a state that is reckoning with a stagnant population.

For a long time, we’ve looked at neighborhoods and regions in neat, stereotypical categories. One neighborhood is rich, another one is blue-collar. One county is urban, another county is rural. That’s all true as far as it goes, but for many decades all of our small towns were a nice cross section of professions, vocations, and educations. In these towns, lawyers and doctors were likely to live alongside mechanics and factory workers. These folks would worship at the same churches and their kids would play on the same baseball teams. Yet as Wilkinson notes, the decline of rural industry led to a mass migration of educated Americans to the cities. In time, the children of lawyers no longer played ball with the children of factory workers; instead they befriended the children of other lawyers. And the small town factory workers left behind? Well, that factory closed down and our newspapers are filled with stories of rural despair.

What can be done to stabilize the decline of rural America, or, more immediately, rural Alabama? It’s a complex question, and it’s one that deserves more attention than it has been getting from our elected officials. Still, there are a few signs of hope. Improvements in rural broadband are crucial to improving educational opportunities for the future, but it also allows for workers who enjoy rural life to live and work there now.  Infrastructure improvements can make longer commutes more tolerable. When funding is set to benefit roads and bridges, citizens should be able to see the fruit of those efforts. Wilkinson offers tough but fair criticism to the Republican Party’s failure to address these problems at the national level, but Alabama’s congressional delegation has done important work lately in making sure that Medicare reimbursement rates are tweaked in such a way that Alabama’s rural hospitals are properly compensated. That’s a start. 

That last point touches on something deeper than dollars and cents. Of course rural hospitals need money to stay open and care for their patients. Proper compensation also insures that doctors can earn a living on par with their education and experience. As our educated citizens sort themselves into tighter communities, government policy needs to find ways to incentivize our professional class to live and work in rural areas. As our state continues to debate Medicaid expansion, we can’t overlook this human element. Communities need people to thrive, and no amount of funding can compensate for a community that continually loses its best people year after year.

Matthew Stokes is a contributing writer for the Alabama Daily News.  He is a writer and college instructor from Birmingham, Alabama. For more information on his work, follow him on Twitter at: @yellingstopal

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