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When it comes to wealth and education levels in Western North Carolina, the region is sharply divided in ways that could have substantial political implications.
Carolina Public Press has analyzed new estimates the U.S. Census Bureau released last month to get a sense of how the region looks by measures of educational attainment and the percentage of people living below the poverty line.
The Great Recession was in full swing during the last official census count in 2010. Job markets were in turmoil, with many workers displaced. They faced tough choices – settle for more secure but lower-paying jobs, live with less, change fields, go back to school for training or relocate to another area of the state or the country.
With continued erosion of jobs in North Carolina’s legacy industries, the state’s high Piedmont and mountain areas faced special challenges during the prolonged economic downtown. The dust from the recession may have settled by mid-2015, the point in time on which the new estimates are based, but the downturn has persisted in some markets. Others have thrived.
The estimates thus offer a snapshot of what Western North Carolina has become in the aftermath of the recession.
The recent estimates didn’t include the region’s smallest counties, but did provide numbers for Buncombe, Burke, Cherokee, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, McDowell, Macon, Madison, Polk, Rutherford, Transylvania and Watauga counties.
At least since the 1930s, poverty and Appalachia have gone together in the popular consciousness. The label has proved a two-edged sword for the region. The Southern mountain states have benefited at times from job creation and other efforts to alleviate suffering and break the generational cycle of poverty. But the stereotype has also perpetuated a hard-to-shake stigma as an economically backward region that remains beyond hope of economic progress.
Reality, especially as represented in the new census estimates, insists on greater complexity.
Overall, the 13 WNC counties for which numbers were released had 15.43 percent of their population living below the poverty rate. Buncombe County, by far the largest in the region and a location noted for its soaring housing costs, fares just slightly better than the region as a whole, with about 14.98 percent below the poverty line.
Some counties have a much higher poverty rate, with Watauga’s the worst at 28.11 percent. Also above 20 percent living in poverty were Madison at 23.68 percent, Jackson at 22.12 percent and McDowell at 20.28 percent.
But some counties had much lower levels of poverty. Henderson was the county that had left the fewest number of its residents behind, with just 3.81 percent below the poverty line. Also very low was Polk County with only 9.43 percent in poverty.
If “poor” represents one oversimplified image of the region, “uneducated” gets equal billing. And it’s equally unfair, according to the census data that show substantial diversity.
Overall, about 28.09 percent of adults in the 13 counties had at least a four-year college degree or a graduate or professional degree. About 13.27 percent had less than a high school education, with 27.52 percent having a high school diploma but no college.
Several counties had a well-education portion of their adult population well above the regional levels. The highest were Watauga with 39.18 percent having at least four-year degree, Buncombe with 36.64 percent and Jackson with 32.34 percent.
Those with very low numbers of college graduates included McDowell at 12.86 percent, Rutherford with 15.37 percent, Burke with 17.33 percent and Cherokee with 18.98 percent.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, adults with less than a high school diploma were in larger proportions than the region as a whole in a few counties, including McDowell at 20.46 percent, Rutherford at 19.38 percent and Burke at 19.18 percent.
Those with very low levels of adults without a high school diploma included Jackson at 9.24 percent, Watauga at 9.56 percent and Macon at 10.16 percent.
Some of the numbers make sense in light of the institutions in those counties. Major universities in Watauga, Jackson and Buncombe counties obviously affect the educational levels in those counties.
But some trends can be surprising. Even though Buncombe had the second highest level of college graduates, it had only the fourth-lowest level of adults with no high school diploma.
Another way to look at these statistics is by calculating the difference between the percentage with at least a college degree and those with less than a high school diploma. Regionally, the numbers in these groups were very close. But if populous Buncombe is taken out of the mix, remaining county populations showed almost 4 percent more people at the lower end of the educational spectrum.
Counties where college-educated substantially outnumbered those with no college education included Watauga at 17.4 percent and Buncombe at 11.14 percent. Those with a much greater percentage lacking a high school diploma versus those with a college education included McDowell with a 20.74 percent edge for those with no diploma, Cherokee at 17.79 percent and Rutherford at 17.74 percent.
Cause and effect?
High educational attainment can typically serve as an indicator for those who have escaped the cycle of poverty, but that’s not necessarily the case in WNC counties.
Watauga and Jackson counties, home to the region’s two largest universities and two of the highest percentages of college-educated adults, also have the highest percentages of people living below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, Henderson and Polk counties have the region’s lowest poverty rates but were only slightly above average regionally on college educations.
One of the earmarks of the Great Recession was that professional with traditionally secure jobs were nearly as vulnerable to job displacement as those in the blue-collar professions that bore the brunt of many previous economic downturns. These numbers for WNC could be bearing witness to that result, so that education is no longer a guarantor for prosperity.
Political prognosticators this year have described partial realignment of white voters with low educational levels and limited economic clout, the voters who are plentiful in much of WNC.
While such voters, especially social conservatives in the South, have gravitated away from the Democratic Party and toward the Republicans for years, the ascendancy of the GOP’s populist wing under presidential nominee Donald Trump may be accelerating that move.
Trump’s opponents can easily demean those voters as ignorant or “deplorables,” but that misses the motivating factors for voters whose grandparents backed New Deal Democrats with fierce loyalty. In many cases the voters are simply disaffected and anti-elitist. Believing they and their way of life has been trampled and forgotten by the solutions offered by the establishments of both major parties, many see Trump’s boisterous campaign as a way to shout their refusal to go quietly into the dustbin of history.
Meanwhile other traditional Republican voters who don’t buy Trump’s brand of conservatism may be less loyal to the party, choosing to back Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton or simply sit out this year’s vote.
Given the demographics in Western North Carolina, this analysis would seem to make much of the area favorable to Trump. For the most part, he did well in this year’s primary vote in most of these counties.
But politics also has deep historical roots that belie simple demographic trends.
Buncombe County has consistently been bedrock of Democratic votes. The biggest danger for Democrats in Buncombe might have been if Clinton had faced strong opposition from a third-party challenger to her left, such as Green Party nominee Jill Stein. However, Stein hasn’t emerged as a serious contender.
While Buncombe is urban, well-educated and relatively prosperous – and thus not a likely place to give Trump an edge, neighboring Henderson is the second-most urban in the region, fairly well-educated and very prosperous. Despite the somewhat similar demographics, Trump is expected to do well in Henderson, which is a staunchly Republican county.
If one takes the low education and wealth standard seriously for the rest of the region, then one might expect Trump to perform especially well in such counties as Cherokee, McDowell, Rutherford and Burke, while Watauga, Buncombe and Jackson look friendliest to Clinton.
How that translates at the polls in this unusual political year remains to be seen.
The six smaller WNC counties not included in this round of census estimates – Avery, Clay, Graham, Swain, Mitchell and Yancey – may also be strong ground for Trump, though Swain’s ethnic diversity as home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians could manifest itself differently.
However, because the race is statewide and the result in individual counties matters based upon their relative populations, reality dictates that these smaller counties won’t have a big impact. Of course, that’s unless the race in North Carolina is exceptionally close. According to some recent polls, that’s a real possibility.
Another way to look at a statewide race is that every vote from every place counts equally, so that a Clinton voter in Murphy or Hayesville matters just the same as one in Boone and a Trump voter in West Asheville or Lake Lure carries just as much sway as one in Morganton. Demographic estimates predict; people actually vote.