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The Hillbilly Elegy Story is Important to Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Howard Risher
Jan. 20, 2017

hillbillyelegyThe popular book Hillbilly Elegy describes the unpleasant reality of life in rural areas that have lost jobs and hope.  The focus is on families living in Ohio but similar failing economies can be found in a number of states.  The focus here is my home state, Pennsylvania.  It’s of course one of the states, along with Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, that surprised pundits when those areas voted for Trump.  To borrow a phrase from a Washington Post column, the loss of jobs has triggered “an epidemic of self-destruction in small town and rural America.”

Roughly 15 years ago a consulting project took me to 38 of the 67 counties in Pennsylvania.  The state Supreme Court concluded that the quality of justice in county courts was inconsistent and the solution was to create a state court system.  I had the lead role in creating the new state-wide HR system.  In each court I met with the president judge and court administrator.  I learned that when factories close and jobs are lost the claims of spousal abuse and DUI citations skyrocket.  Today drugs are part of the problem.

Nothing good is happening in those counties.  The families in the book were at one time strongly self-reliant but today need help that only government is organized to provide. Recent reports of the decline in life expectancy for white Americans confirm the problems are widespread.

The emotional and health impact of long term unemployment is understood.  The decline in labor force participation has also been studied.  It affects entire communities.  The media has also reported that young college graduates are moving away to urban areas.  Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are not among the highest (that’s San Jose) but both have experienced increases exceeding 20 percent (the numbers vary with the comparative period).

That’s reflected in population data.  Overall Pennsylvania’s population is increasing slowly.  The counties contiguous to Philadelphia have grown the fastest while the numbers have declined in 26 counties.  They all voted solidly for Trump.  The declines started in the 1980s.

More importantly the population is also aging.  In the brief period from 2010 to 2015 the percentage age 55 and over increased, for example, in Mercer county from 30.8 to 34.0 percent.  In Elk county, the change was 31.6 to 35.5 percent and in Armstrong it grew from 31.7 to 35.3 percent.

It’s likely that similar trends unfolded in rural areas of other formerly manufacturing regions.  The numbers for Ohio and Michigan are similar to the Pennsylvania pattern.  Wisconsin’s population grew slightly faster.  The Illinois population declined.

Until the book’s publication and the election, the economic and societal problems in those areas, as well as government’s role, were effectively ignored by elected officials, public policy researchers and organizations that fund research.  The focus since the 1960s has been on the problems in cities and affecting women and minorities.  That research has not been misguided—those studies paid my graduate tuition—but with the election the residents in rural areas are likely to have a greater near term impact on the country.

The point in writing is that the trends have unrecognized implications for all levels of government.  Federal, state and local government agencies employ people in every county.  Their employees are aging and retiring in large numbers.  The poor economies, stagnant incomes and declining populations mean tax revenues are a concern.  The recession and budget deficits necessitated pay freezes, furloughs and hiring freezes.  Added to that is the ongoing criticism of government.

As the head of one public administration program recently said to me, “Why would a student pay our tuition for a degree that qualifies them only for a low salary job?”

That’s especially true for those with skills in demand in other sectors.  Prisons illustrate the point.  Every prison has to have medical care specialists in-house 24/7.  They are frequently located, however, in less desirable, rural areas.  The pay and steady work makes hourly jobs attractive (for those comfortable working in prisons) but that’s less true for individuals like nurses who have job alternatives.

Higher salaries of course are also available for accountants, engineers, lawyers, technology specialists etc.  If labor markets continue to tighten, the pay gaps will widen.

But the reason for this column is the prospective staffing problem for public agencies in those poor rural areas that has not been explored.  Providing access to health care is the tip of the community and home services government agencies need to provide.

State and local government units, however, are confronted by budget issues, near term retirements and the difficulty attracting replacements.  Staffing should be managed as both a numbers and a quality concern.  Many jurisdictions will not be able to offer attractive career opportunities.  The pool of entry level candidates is limited to individuals with family ties who chose to remain in the area.

Rural school systems have been forced by budget problems to consolidate.  Rural hospitals have also merged to cut costs.  It would make sense to merge local jurisdictions or at least increase the use of shared services, although experience shows that can be problematic.  Pennsylvania, as an example, has 4,897 government units including 1,546 townships and 501 school districts.  Illinois has 6,963 and Ohio has 3,842.  In contrast, Maryland has only 347.  Consolidation is an obvious answer.

The academic community could play an important role helping public organizations plan for the future.  The magnitude of community problems needs to be documented.  Internally workforce planning would be a good first step.  This clearly warrants research attention.

Author: Howard Risher has 40 plus years of experience as a consultant to clients in every sector. He has a BA in psychology from Penn State and an MBA and Ph.D. from Wharton. He is the co-author with Bill Wilder of the new book, It’s Time for High Performance Government: Winning Strategies to Engage and Energize and the Public Sector Workforce. You can reach him at [email protected].

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