Bring It on Home
Not long ago, North Carolina was experiencing an economic boom. Rep. John Szoka and his GOP colleagues in Raleigh put their laser-focus on tax reform, fiscal restraint and jobs creation. Before long, Forbes Magazine was telling folks that North Carolina was the “Best State in America” to do business in.
That was then. Now, just a few short weeks later, we’re reeling from the impact of the coronavirus and various lock-down policies on our economy. Unemployment claims are up. People are hurting.
I know that, as a state, North Carolina can work its way back into high employment and prosperity.
The problem is, that when it comes to economic assistance, the bureaucrats in Raleigh too often forget about our part of the state. Too often, Cumberland County is left till last. Too often, we don’t get our fair share.
I mean, think about it this way. Our county currently has a population of around 332,000 residents and growing. There are a lot of votes here --- and come election time, the politicians of both parties know it. North Carolina has 100 counties, and by population, Cumberland is the fifth-largest county in the State.
But the federal government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis says that, in economic growth, Cumberland isn’t number five in the State --- we’re number 47.
Last year, the real gross domestic product (GDP) for the State of North Carolina grew by 2.4%, the Bureau says. But here in Cumberland County, our growth was only 1.7%.
The difference between 1.7% and 2.4% may seem small, but believe me, the difference can be measured in jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics from March 2020, just before the coronavirus hit us, North Carolina had an amazingly low unemployment rate of 4.4% --- even better than the national average. But in Cumberland County, the unemployment rate was a whopping 5.5%, much worse than the state.
Even before the coronavirus got here, we were already falling behind the rest of the state. In fact, we had already been falling further and further behind for several years.
And what about per capita income? We’re behind there, too. At present, the average per capita income in North Carolina is $46,117. But here in Cumberland County, it’s only $38,780. And those figures may look even worse after the impact of the pandemic is reflected in the numbers.
Let me try to put that in perspective. We’re the fifth-largest County in the State, and our residents make $7337 below the statewide average in per capita income. And friends, that’s nothing new --- this trend has also continued for many years.
It’s easy to point out our economic shortcomings, but it’s more challenging to propose solutions, especially when the impact of COVID-19 is still being felt. Regardless of the impact of the pandemic, we need to go back to basics. We need to focus on two solutions: Education and Business Creation. They’re not separate --- they’re linked to each other.
Education first. North Carolina is in the lower half of the country in both teacher salary and spending per student, but Cumberland County is a “low wealth” County, and we’re in even worse condition. We need to start by making sure our current students, as well as our future teachers, have access to a quality basic education, from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Beyond that, we must accept the reality that more than two thirds of our students will never earn a four-year college degree. Many of them are not even interested in that path. We need to provide those students trade skills, from welding to computer science. When was the last time you tried to find a qualified mason? Trust me, they’re hard to come by nowadays. There is also a shortage of mechanics and carpenters.
We’re not doing our young people any favors, if we try to send them all to college for a four-year degree. We need more vocational education, in both the FTCC classrooms and on-the-job training programs, with local employers as partners.
We need to make it attractive for businesses to locate here and bring jobs here. Yes, this sometimes means tax incentives. And yes, this also means that, as hosts to Fort Bragg, we need to expand defense contracting and vigorously solicit Defense Industrial Manufacturing Companies.
But it also means a skilled, educated work force. If we’re going to bring good paying jobs to Cumberland County, we have to show that we have skilled workers who know how to provide both goods and services. This type of “hands on” education is key to business creation in Cumberland County.
We have had some successes in the past. Why haven’t we been consistent in being able to attract new businesses? What will it take to get us moving forward?
It takes vision and a commitment to that vision. It takes leadership and a belief in the potential of our community. It takes someone willing and able to fight for our fair share of attention in Raleigh. That is why I am in this race. Join me for a better tomorrow for Cumberland County.
Diane Wheatley, Candidate for NC House District 43