Can a Governor Save Rural Regions? Should He?

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia unveiled a plan for economic growth in the rural parts of the state.


When the final days of the Virginia gubernatorial contest arrive and you find yourself hurling vases at the television because you're sick of snarling attack ads, just remember: The candidates offered much substance back in summer.

Republican Ed Gillespie has laid out extensive policy proposals on taxes and the opioid crisis, for example. Yesterday, Democrat Ralph Northam unveiled his plan for economic growth in rural Virginia.

You can understand why he did. While the crescent from Northern Virginia through Richmond and over to Hampton Roads holds the bulk of the state's vote, rural areas will be key to the GOP effort, and if Northam can make inroads there, he could sew up the contest by October and coast to victory.

And you can understand why his plan would appeal to voters in the rural southwest, what with the decline of the coal industry and so on. Still, it's worth digging a little deeper into Northam's plan and the premises behind it.

"When I travel around the commonwealth," Northam writes, "I hear a lot of folks say they're from rural Virginia, but not enough who say they've stayed in rural Virginia. And that's what we need to fix."

It is? Why?

One possible reason: There is intrinsic value in keeping the region populated. But that doesn't seem very plausible. If anything, you could argue that, environmentally speaking, it might be better to keep some swaths of the state unpopulated.

A more plausible explanation is that the government should help the residents of Southwest Virginia. But are they better off staying there? If they can improve their economic circumstances by moving to urban areas, then why not let them?

Of course, some people in Southwest Virginia might want to improve their economic circumstances and still stay put. But is it the state's job to ensure they can? And if the answer is yes, then what does that imply about, say, struggling economic sectors? Should the state help people stay in fading industries as well as fading regions? If not, why not?

The other day The Washington Post reported on the federal flood insurance program, which has racked up $25 billion in debt. The story cited a $56,000 house in Baton Rouge that, thanks to repeated floods, has run up almost $429,000 in claims. Another house, in Mississippi, is valued at $90,000 and has collected more than $600,000 in claims.

Critics of the program say it encourages people to stay in place when what they really need to do is move. The point could apply to more than just flood plains.

Northam also says the "top concern" he hears from large manufacturers and economic developers is "whether we have the skilled workforce necessary to grow and attract new jobs and industries." To address that concern, he wants to create "flexible, business-oriented workforce training programs across the commonwealth" that can teach people the "unique skillset(s)" that are "oftentimes required to meet that company's needs."

Northam isn't suggesting anything we haven't heard many times before. But the idea does raise two questions—one practical and the other philosophical.

The practical question is whether skill-specific training will help workers as much as it's cut out to. The New York Times recently noted a new study in the Journal of Human Resources that suggests technological and other changes often leave skill-trained workers behind—and rather than retrain them, employers often let them go and bring in new talent. As one of the authors of the research put it, the real need is "for more general cognitive skills that give workers the ability to adapt to new circumstances and new jobs."

That's the practical question. The philosophical one is this: If companies need workers who are trained to perform specific tasks, then why don't those companies do the training themselves? Why should the state—i.e., the taxpayers—shoulder the burden of doing it for them?

After all, labor is a production input just like raw materials. If Acme Semiconductors said to Virginia, "We'd like to build a plant in your state, and we want you to provide us with a steady supply of high-grade silicon," the commonwealth would (one hopes) tell it Acme to go get its own silicon, thank you very much. But when Acme says it wants workers trained in clean-room manufacturing, somehow Virginia feels it is falling down on the job if it doesn't provide them. Is that really what state government is for?

It seems like a reasonable question to ask—even if it doesn't show up in a late-October attack ad.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.