Want prosperity? Drill for knowledge

It sounds so good.

“The East has a higher unemployment rate and lower per capita income than the rest of the state, but it does not have to be that way. With safe, environmentally sound drilling in the deep sea off our coast, we can create new high paying jobs, jobs that the people of our poor counties can fill.”

Speaking is Pat McCrory, Charlotte's mayor and Republican candidate for governor. He was at a campaign stop in Greenville, N.C., in June. And he was making a case for drilling for oil and gas off North Carolina's coast.

His point? The oil industry could be the answer to one of the vexing questions North Carolina faces: How to grow prosperity and increase opportunity in the state's poorest region, loosely defined as the 41 counties east of Interstate 95.

Every governor for the past 40 years has presided over two North Carolinas. So will the next.

But offshore drilling is a false promise.

N.C.'s great divide

One North Carolina is booming, and mostly urban. The latest Census estimate showed that's officially the North Carolina where most people live – the populous Interstate 85 crescent from the Triangle to the Triad to Charlotte.

The other North Carolina – represented mostly by counties in the east and a handful in the extreme west – is stagnant or growing slightly. It's predominately rural.

Why worry about that gap? All of North Carolina pays the price so long as poverty and lack of opportunity persist at high levels in one part of the state.

Key numbers tell the story.

Thirty-five counties in the East have poverty rates higher than the state average of 12.9 percent. In eight, more than a quarter of the people are poor, according to a recent report by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research in Chapel Hill.

Only 16.6 percent of adults age 25-64 in the East have finished college, while nearly a quarter of those statewide have.

The median household income in the East is $32,274; statewide it's $38,194. (For comparison: In Mecklenburg that figure is $50,579; in Wake (Raleigh) it's $54,988)

Each recent governor has pointed to that divide, and tried in some way to bridge it. The question is, what public policies are the right ones?

Forget oil, educate

Offshore drilling is the wrong answer for the rural East. It sounds good, but the reality isn't as rosy.

Drilling is a boom-and-bust economy, not a sure thing.

The environmental risks could be fatal to one of the East's cash-cow assets: pristine beaches that attract a thriving tourism economy.

The record in Louisiana and Mississippi also shows those high-paying oil jobs are mostly low-skill jobs, and lure kids away from education that could lead to more permanent prosperity.

Besides, there's a difference between creating high-paying jobs and creating prosperity that lasts. To defeat entrenched poverty, you have to have sustainable prosperity.

How? That's the economic development discussion North Carolina ought to be hearing from candidates for governor.

Some starting points: Improve the level (and quality) of public education. Protect rather than exploit unique natural and cultural resources. Assist small businesses and home-grown firms – collectively the region's biggest job-providers.

Those initiatives are hard work. They require a continuing commitment of state money. And they don't have the same ring on the stump as the promise of new oil jobs.