Rural Virginia Does Not Need A Marshall Plan

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles

In devastated post-war Europe, millions of people were qualified and eager for jobs or desperate for capital to get their farms planted and harvested.  In demographically-diminishing rural Virginia, farms are mechanized. If you build a huge factory today qualified workers may not come in sufficient numbers.

A scaled-down 21st Century Marshall Plan is a nice rhetorical image, and former Governor Gerald Baliles captured the headlines by using it in a recent speech, but the analogy simply doesn’t fit.  Rural Virginia’s problems cannot be fixed with an infusion of cash.

When Baliles has something serious to say, serious Virginians should read or listen.  After successful turns as legislator, attorney general and governor (pestered but never tripped by the loyal opposition) he returned to private life and never again appeared on the ballot.  That alone sets him apart from today’s career politicians.  He has had a long-standing focus on his native rural Virginia, but his legal career was Main Street Richmond.

“If you were to take the “rural horseshoe” and hold it up against the Golden Crescent, the contrasts are stunning. Two Virginias!  Moreover, according to our community college system officials, if the “rural horseshoe” region were considered a separate state, it would be tied for dead last with Mississippi and West Virginia for educational attainment levels—dead last for citizens with high school diplomas; dead last for citizens with college degrees. Think about that.”

His emphasis on education goes back to his own life experience and that of so many others, my mother’s Southwest Virginia family included.  His critique of Virginia’s failure to hold down higher education costs and provide a high enough share from taxpayer funding is spot on.  As the brisk Bacon’s Rebellion discussions on Richmond’s challenged schools illustrate, however, there are more than two Virginia’s.

The real headline in his talk was the discussion of the Virginia Tobacco Commission’s efforts and the poor results after so many bright ideas, so many grants, and so much money.  I remember the birth of that idea in the Office of the Attorney General under Mark Earley, Randolph Beales, Jerry Kilgore and then Judith W. Jadgmann – three of them with rural roots.  I signed for the first electronic transfer of tobacco settlement funds and the number of zeros made me woozy.

“Arguably, with some exceptions, such as Danville, the rural region of Southside and Southwest Virginia is in worse shape today than 20 years ago when the Tobacco Commission had more than $2 billion to “transform” the region as the legislation required. Look at the educational attainment levels,” Baliles said in his recent speech to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). Again, spot on.

Baliles’ idea to focus remaining tobacco settlement funds on educational attainment is a good one, but he also has his eyes on the burst of higher state tax revenue that will result when Virginia conforms to recent federal tax changes.  Never has so little money been earmarked by so many people for so many pet projects:  the earned income tax credit are K-12 school construction and reconstruction top a growing list. (More on that tomorrow.)

Rural Virginia, designated by that rough U-shaped ring of relative poverty around the corridors of wealth, has educational assets.  Baliles notes that 14 of the 23 community colleges are located there, but they are the smaller ones. Their doors are not battered by more applicants then they can handle, in most cases.  Virginia Tech, Radford and Longwood are state universities in the footprint, and the powerful New River Valley economy is fueled by the first two.

The problem is that young people get what education they do and then leave for the bright lights and the land of Uber.  Or they leave to get that next level of education.  For any number of reasons, once they have the opportunity they simply do not  stay in sufficient numbers to become a magnet for high tech or advanced manufacturing jobs in great numbers.  Many who stay lack that educational attainment and the opportunity it brings.

I cannot think of any policy, any economic development strategy, any spending plan coming out of the General Assembly that will change this pattern.

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11 responses to “Rural Virginia Does Not Need A Marshall Plan”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    are we actually seeing a net out-migration of rural Virginia? Is the population of rural Virginia decreasing?

  2. CrazyJD Avatar

    Thoughtful piece, Steve. Had not thought about this problem in the way you talk about it. I think you are arguing that, absent a collection of “modern economy” enterprises that collect in certain rural locations, those locations will be left to fester. I think you are right. As farming operations aggregated, family farms included, Nebraska has an increase in ghost towns. There are many ghost towns in Colorado left by silver mining. It is the natural way of things, and we should not be upset about it.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    With Jerry I mourn what is being lost, having experienced at least a bit the small town life in places like Bluefield, Christiansburg, Narrows. But the cities and the ‘burbs are the magnets now. I’ve been with the politicians out there making the hollow promises. I remember Earle Williams promising to do his best for them, then getting in car to go north and us talking about how it really wasn’t going to happen. Life is change.

  4. Ten or fifteen years ago I wrote about an initiative Gov. Baliles had put into place in his native Patrick County. The idea was to raise the overall level of education — young people, old people, people in between — with the expectation that the county would be able to attract more investment. The effort was well thought through and, in the early stages at least, showing signs of promise.

    I would love to go back and see what happened: (1) Did the program successfully raise the average education level? and (2) Did Patrick County attract more corporate investments as a result?

    If the answer is positive to both questions, then Baliles can point to a concrete example of where his ideas have worked. If not, well….

  5. djrippert Avatar

    I don’t know of anywhere in America where rural revitalization is working. There may be examples, I just can’t think of any.

    Maybe we should move the state capital to Roanoke.

    AS for Baliles – I could not agree more. Eight and one half years ago I had my own blog – Groveton’s Virginia. One of my columns looked at the legacy of former Governor Baliles …

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    No.. the small towns and rural counties are not going to come back. The way the world economy works is to centralize and what ever advantage small towns and counties had with lower cost labor – has been more than overwhelmed by other factors.

    We do travel a bit around the US – I paddle rivers – all over. and they take me to all sorts of places far from the urban areas – where the rivers are not so great to paddle – better than before when they were cesspools of sewage but still not like rivers out in the hinterlands…

    but I digress (again!) – traveling the rural, one goes through one hollowed out town after another… what is left is some lonely govt facilities like Post Offices … a Subway .. and a “Get and GO” service station and a few other odds and ends .. and somewhere on the edge of some – a Walmart.

    the rest is “roached”…. and anyone who has a kid – better know that kid needs to get the best education he/she can and skedaddle to where the jobs on… and someday after 30-40 years of humping for a living – come back “home” to live on the land the family owns.

    All this talk though about solar – and how it eats up valuable land – that’s a joke for the rural places that are no more – in economic terms.. what they do have, if nothing else, is lost of vacant land… unproductive land… and solar is one of the few things that some folks could get by leasing their land.

    Then we have the NoVa complaints with the composite index. Many of these rural places have no economic base and hand by a thread in financing their schools… without the composite index -I don’t know how they could afford to keep their schools open.

  7. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
    Reed Fawell 3rd

    I take a contrary view.

    I suggest that if we look at how rural land and small towns have waxed and waned, decade by decade, over the past 70 years we would be very surprised, and shaken, in our current attitudes.

    There are some interesting growth and mobility studies and projections now being at Brooking’s Institution. I suggest they will largely prove wrong.

    Some of them can be found at:

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      For a sample study see one published September, 2018, and titled:

      The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility

      It is found at:

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    One might think with the advent of the internet that geography would not matter as much but the truth is that most rural schools do not provide the same caliber of education that most urban schools in “good” neighborhoods provide and the subsequent transfer to higher ed including Community College is different.

    Community Colleges in the rural areas are more tuned to kids with not top notch K-12 educations. They teach trades that are endemic to that locale… which is good for local kids getting local jobs but it’s not as much a pipeline to a 4yr as Community Colleges that we see near our urban areas – which are much more tuned to THOSE very heavy 21st century economies.

    The rural areas lack other important services germane to the 21st century like international air travel and top end medical facilities.

    I’d love to see something to change this and the rural areas become much more productive but these days – at least in Virginia – not even farming and livestock is a good employment area because unless it’s farming that is competitive on labor costs – which means operations that are automated and don’t rely human / manual labor except where low-pay,low-education migrant labor is used.

    The big growth areas – in Virginia – and most places with urban hubs – is exurban suburbs… where the cost of housing is cheaper and where many who do leave the rural for urban jobs – end up living – and commuting.

    I just don’t see any “plans” right now from pro-rural folks that seem feasible or likely to succeed.. it’s basically “hail mary” type efforts.

  9. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Not sure I agree. The problem with the tobacco commission is that it became a corrupt slush fund for politically powerful people in depressed rural areas. One of its top managers was convicted. That’s not the same as saying that providing extra funding for struggling regions is a bad thing. It can be used for better education, broadband and organic startups. There really isn’t much else.

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