Doug Pardue’s series in The Post and Courier, “Forgotten South Carolina,” emphasizes exactly what is happening in rural South Carolina.
An economic divide grew when freeways such as I-95 and I-85 zipped through the state, routing drivers quickly through rural areas and on to their destinations, taking with them their revenue. We need to get people back to these rural areas and investing in communities once again.
The state is not doing well in rural economic development, according to the Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED). This only exacerbates the divides between rural and urban communities.
While reports from Columbia indicate an improving economy, Washington-based CFED gives South Carolina an F in “business and jobs.”
CFED released its 2013 Economic & Opportunity Scorecard on Jan. 30 and ranked the Palmetto State 48th overall for its residents’ financial stability. The failing score in business and jobs is due in part to high unemployment, particularly among households of color.
In addition, over 28 percent of the state’s jobs are classified as “low wage” — the ninth worst rate in the entire U.S. South Carolina wages are more than $6,300 lower than the national average, and even worse for rural residents.
Nonetheless, the most promising opportunities to change South Carolina for the better are emerging in the most challenging places. Rural areas are part of our history — starting with the battles that formed these United States — and their rich resources are not being used to their full potential.
The state’s wealth is made through housing development, agriculture, conservation, forestry and tourism. Rural areas have mechanisms for growing these industries. Moreover, small towns boast another much needed resource — people.
Recognizing the opportunity to abandon yesterday’s failed practices while honoring the best of our history, resources and traditions, organizations from a range of sectors began forming the Rural Resource Coalition SC (RRC-SC) a few years ago to help steer our state in a better direction.
The mission of the RRC-SC is to capitalize on the state’s human and natural resources and improve the quality of life for all her citizens. We promote sustainable economic development in rural communities and wise stewardship of their land and water.
Harnessing opportunities in energy efficiency, community economic development, local tourism, food markets, affordable housing, forestry and conservation — to name a few options — will mean jobs.
One promising strategy for economic development that the RRC-SC recognizes is energy efficiency/clean energy, which capitalizes on assets that already exist in rural areas and can be applied to urban areas as well. Between 1998 and 2007, energy efficiency/clean energy jobs grew at 36.2 percent compared to South Carolina’s overall job growth of 2.2 percent.
Ultimately, energy efficiency retrofits lower consumers’ electricity bills, create community jobs and economic investment, reduce utilities’ operating costs, reduce carbon emissions, increase consumers’ financial independence for priority expenditures, improve social cohesion among neighborhoods and enhance everyone’s overall quality of life.
While consumers will receive the most immediate benefits, energy efficiency will also provide advantages to participating utilities, banks, municipalities and builders. A modest investment of $5 million in an energy efficiency retrofit fund could create a minimum of 1,000 jobs in an economically distressed community.
An RRC-SC partner, the South Carolina Association of Community Development Corporations, has been a lead advocate for another strategy: adopting a state earned income tax credit (EITC), greatly reducing income poverty while increasing net worth. By raising asset limits for cash welfare and Medicaid, the state could remove one of the largest barriers for the lowest-income families to save money.
In addition, establishing and funding a state individual development account program would assist individuals and families in buying homes, starting businesses or going to college.
Finally, South Carolina should regulate payday, auto-title and short-term installment loans (i.e. predatory lending) and offer fair financial products and alternatives, thereby improving credit scores for the significant share of unbanked and underbanked households in the state.
As Doug Pardue’s series underscores, our future lies in resolving the stark contrast between rural and urban communities and transforming our state into a single, united community. By spurring wealth creation from within rural communities with strategies like these, we can bridge those divides and strengthen our economy.
Indeed, the combined sectors of the Rural Resource Coalition SC comprise the backbone of South Carolina’s economy and represent hundreds of thousands of jobs.
By building on existing resources and assets, we are in a position to leverage our impact exponentially and improve the lives of all South Carolinians, especially those in rural areas. We hope you’ll join us in charting a new path forward.
Sara Hummel Rajca is director of partnerships and outreach for the S.C. Wildlife Federation; Lowell Atkinson is a program associate for the S.C. Association of Community Development Corporations; Majorie Palmer is the government relations coordinator for the S.C. chapter of The Nature Conservancy.