Rural Pennsylvania – Refocusing Economic Development Strategies


James Carville, the gifted political strategist and pundit, once reportedly referred to Pennsylvania as, “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between.” And to be sure, many urban sophisticates share this belief.

But this perception comes from a different time when Pennsylvania’s cities boasted huge, overwhelmingly Democratic populations while the suburban and rural areas, albeit sparsely populated, were culturally aligned bastions of red state Republicanism.

Yet over the past several decades Pennsylvania’s populations and politics have shifted. The southeastern cities of Philadelphia, Lancaster, Harrisburg, York, and the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton corridor now comprise one vast urban region stretching from the Susquehanna to the Delaware River. The other three urban regions include Wilkes-Barre-Scranton, Pittsburgh and Erie. Beyond these urban areas, are the 48 counties that comprise rural Pennsylvania.

The expansion of urban Pennsylvania has ushered in not only demographic changes but also political changes in suburban areas. Today there is only one Republican member of Congress whose district resides mostly in the four suburban southeastern counties of Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester. These counties have been solidly Republican for generations. The same political trend can be observed at the State Senate and State House levels where seats held by Republicans for over one hundred years are electing Democrats.

In the process rural Pennsylvania has lost much of its traditional political clout in Harrisburg. Although their populations have grown faster that he rest of the state – mainly due to the in-migration of “downshifting” Baby Boomers --- rural counties have also been losing their economic power as well.

This can be seen by the fact that rural Pennsylvania is falling behind in terms of income and jobs. A Pennsylvania State University state titled, “Pennsylvania’s Rural Economy: An Analysis of Recent Trends,” found that in the 1960s rural workers earned 84 cents for every dollar an urban worker earned. By 1999, that number fell to 73 cents.

Similarly, a March 2007 study by the Brookings Institute found a household income gap of nearly $9,000 per year between rural and urban Pennsylvanians. Brookings also shows an education gap. In 2000, 19.3 percent of rural residents had not completed high school and 15.4 percent had completed college compared with 17.7 percent and 25.1 percent in urban areas.

Much of this has to do with a long-standing economic transition. Rural Pennsylvania, has been losing its former jobs --- many of them well-paying union positions --- in mining, textiles, stone, clay and glass and primary metals. These have been replaced by generally lower wage jobs in health care, education, restaurants, and social services.

As a result, rural Pennsylvania has been shifting from a region that produced wealth to a region that consumes and services wealth. In 1969, 78 percent of income came from earnings. In 1999, this percentage has been reduced to 62 percent. Income from retirement doubled as a percentage while income from dividends, interest and rent increased from 11 percent to 18 percent over the same period as reported by Penn State.

The shifting employment trends in rural Pennsylvania offer a glimpse into the spiraling downside of economies that either do not grow or have job growth without real wage growth. The region is left with a stagnant tax base where local governments can provide basic services only by continuing to raise taxes. These taxes make it difficult to attract new business and retain existing industry.

The question is what can be done to reverse the trend. Rural Pennsylvania has untapped strengths: abundant natural resources, strong work ethic, solid communities and high quality of life. These are the qualities on which to build the future for this vast region.

Sadly, however, these strengths are barely taken into account in Pennsylvania’s economic development strategies. These primarily have focused on tourism, entertainment, and attracting high tech jobs to the state. Billions have been invested to build new stadiums in our urban areas and convention centers across Pennsylvania. This kind of investment has done very little to capitalize on the inherent strengths of our rural communities.

Nor has the state really addressed the economic impact of $4 gasoline on our economy and quality of life. Some people say that this shift will herald a return to our urban centers and mass transportation. Others see the rebirth of manufacturing in America as logistics costs coupled with rapid inflation in countries like China and Vietnam depreciate their advantage as cheap manufacturing centers.

This possible shift in global trade offers a unique opportunity for rural Pennsylvania which has the workforce, the low land costs and a location --- the area is within ten hours of 40 percent of the US economy --- well-suited for global competition. But sadly the state --- unlike many in the southeast and Texas --- is taking little action to build new infrastructure to move goods and services quickly and efficiently between ports, rail and roads.

Such jobs in trade, distribution and manufacturing could be critical to a revival in rural Pennsylvania’s economy. These are family wage jobs that often pay 10 percent higher wages than similar jobs in other industries according to The Business Roundtable. High energy prices also make the area’s resources competitive again. Coal is now in play as is new exploration for natural gas. Rural Pennsylvania can benefit from new coal gasification technologies as well as new gas exploration in its rural center.

These jobs as well as those in manufacturing and logistics can only grow by implementing a new economic strategy which focuses not only on stadium and convention centers but upon basic infrastructure. Such a strategy would help link these communities with national and global markets and facilitate the expansion of manufacturing and mining as well as making it easier for high-tech service companies to locate in rural areas.

It is time to make a basics-oriented approach the cornerstone of a determined effort to turn around rural Pennsylvania. These communities are great places to live and raise a family, and are populated by hard-working, motivated people. What they need now is a commitment to the kind of infrastructure investment that will allow them a decent shot at an economic renaissance.

Dennis M. Powell is president and CEO of Massey Powell an issues management consulting company located in Plymouth Meeting, PA.