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Popular wisdom / August 25, 2021
The 2020 Census results are out, and duty compels me to report there’s not a lot of good news in the data for Halifax County nor much else of rural America, for that matter. Over the past decade the county’s population has shrunk by 6.1 percent, from 36,241 people in 2010 to 34,022 in 2020. The population decline comes as no great surprise — the trend in the rural U.S. has been clear for some time — but the severity of the fall was a shock. And Halifax is hardly alone.

In Mecklenburg County, the population dropoff was 7.4 percent; in Charlotte County, 8.4 percent; in Pittsylvania, 4.7 percent. Brunswick County took the prize, if you want to call it that, by shedding 9.1 percent of its population over the past decade. And so the story goes across Southside Virginia. Far to our east, Sussex County was down 10.4 percent; to the west, the City of Danville clung tight to a modest 1.1 percent dip, and the only clear winner in the region was Bedford County, with a 15.7 percent population gain, roughly double the state’s average growth rate of 7.9 percent. (Bedford’s strong showing probably comes as a result of being situated between Liberty University and Smith Mountain Lake.) In a similar vein, I thought neighboring Mecklenburg might see only a modest dropoff, owing to the appeal of its two lakes (Kerr and Gaston) and the presence of a big-name employer in Microsoft — but the head counters at the Census Bureau found otherwise. So much for idle speculation.

We’re a far cry from the days when Southside and Southwest Virginia were the tail wagging the Commonwealth’s political dog, exerting outsized influence by having just enough warm bodies to fill seats at the General Assembly and sending the same politicians to Richmond year after year, where they would accumulate seniority and power. Same-old same-old syndrome lives on in Southside, but our long-serving electeds of the modern era are no match for the legislative lions who ruled the affairs of yesteryear. (No one will ever mistake the Frank Ruffs, Bill Stanleys and Danny Marshalls of the world for A.L. Philpott, the Henry County delegate who ruled as Speaker of the House for more than a decade.) It took time for the disjointed locales of Northern Virginia and the Golden Crescent (Richmond and Tidewater areas) to get their political acts together, but now that they have asserted their dominance in Richmond, it’s hard to see the old times ever returning.

Frankly, from a geographically neutral point of view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a strong argument to be made that with Southside Virginia’s legislative influence on the decline, Southside Virginian citizens are actually better off as a result. A prime example of how this works is Virginia’s expansion of Medicaid coverage for low-income earners — something that a largely urban Democratic contingent at the General Assembly accomplished over strident opposition of Republicans hailing mostly from the countryside. Southside and Southwest Virginia are home to all too many poor families that, prior to Medicaid expansion, struggled to gain access to the health care system. This past year has provided ample evidence of the calamities that ensue when people’s health is placed at risk, yet Southside lawmakers, with few exceptions, adamantly opposed the idea that their low-income constituents should be able to see a nurse or doctor through participation in a well-established, if imperfect, program like Medicaid.

This unconscionable opposition was cast aside once Democrats took control of the House of Delegates, State Senate and Governor’s Mansion — and our area is better for it. While political fortunes can always change, the notion that Republicans might someday turn back the clock on Medicaid expansion is practically inconceivable at this point. At the federal level, party leaders similarly vowed to do away with Obamacare (the law upon which expanded Medicaid is based) and we all know how that turned out.

If demography is destiny and lightly populated areas are more or less permanently consigned to secondary political status, if not outright irrelevance, then what possible path forward exists for rural America? How does an area with so many problems overcome the handicap of not having nearly enough votes to attempt possible solutions? The obvious answer is to accept junior partner status with more densely populated areas that share our interests — such as the wish to improve local transportation networks. Or schools. Or health care. For far too long, Southside and Southwest lawmakers have been good at saying “no.” Can they bring themselves to say “yes?”

Leaving aside the personalities involved, let’s take a look at just one priority in rural America: universal broadband. We all know the picture in Southside and rural America is pretty dismal on this score. And while I don’t believe for a minute that high-speed internet unto itself is enough to turn around rural communities, it’s certainly a precondition before real progress can be made — you can’t expect the countryside to thrive on an informational desert island.

Fortunately, the outlook for universal broadband is better than it’s ever been, thanks to the flood of federal assistance that already has come down the pike (through pandemic relief bills such as the American Rescue Plan, passed in the spring) and the waiting-in-the-wings infrastructure deal in Congress that would establish universal broadband everywhere in the U.S. At their core, these packages respond to big problems with a simple solution — fire up the money press! — backed by the commonsense realization that such investments in the future will largely pay for themselves over time. (As the wise business person once said, sometimes you’ve got to spend money to make money.) All of this activity runs headlong against anti-government orthodoxy, and the fact it’s finally happening raises the hope that this self-defeating tight-fistedness — the calling card of Southside lawmakers — may finally be on the wane.

If you want an example of how Southside can exert influence in the face of declining population, consider an idea that got started here in Halifax and has spread elsewhere since: local option sales taxes to build new school facilities. The need to update antiquated schools is staggering all across Virginia, and the success of our sales tax vote in 2019 presents a potential fix (or, more likely, one ingredient of a potential fix) that could apply statewide. It’s hard to say which was more surprising — that residents would vote to raise their own taxes, or that it would be a Southside Republican, Del. James Edmunds, who shepherded the sales tax proposal through the General Assembly. High and low, the success of the referendum ran counter to the expectation that a conservative rural county would never approve a tax increase of any kind.

It should be noted that sales taxes aren’t an especially good way to raise the vast sums needed to build new schools — there are better places to scrounge up the money than consumers’ pocketbooks — but any solution is better than none at all, which was the reality for Halifax County prior to the referendum. With Halifax’s success, other Virginia localities have approached the legislature asking to hold similar ballot initiatives. Meantime, the Commonwealth is arguably closer than it’s been at any time in the past half-century to putting together a multi-billion dollar school construction financing package, drawing, no doubt, on our local experience to show that voters will not exact punishment for raising taxes if they feel they’ve gotten something valuable (like a new school for their kids) in return. That a small, low-income county like Halifax would have been the one to test-drive this concept was a surprise. That the rest of Virginia, in some form or fashion, might embrace it would be a happy result.

A declining population doesn’t have to be the death knell of a community or region. We can still have nice things in Southside Virginia even if our ability to provide a high standard of living is somewhat dependent on the beneficence of others. It’s fundamentally bad for Virginia (and for the United States) to be divided between haves and have-nots, and with initiatives such as universal broadband — which mostly helps rural areas, and is largely paid for by taxpayers in wealthier regions — you see a commitment to shared prosperity shining through.

But rural communities must do their part too. We need to shoulder our share of the tax load and work with our urban and suburban neighbors to address the problems that vex them. Us versus them is a foolish mindset to adopt when “they” are more influential than “we.” With the Census results being what they are, Southside and Southwest will inevitably lose seats when Virginia’s election districts are redrawn next year to reflect the decade’s population shifts. One can only hope that whatever rural Virginia may lose in numbers, it’ll regain through greater wisdom on how to put diminishing influence to good use.

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