Can rural America be saved?
This was a question posed by the New York Times a few months ago in December as well as in umpteen other articles since the Presidential Election in November 2016. There is a growing frustration that our urban “super-cities” will be the only places where there are jobs in a few more decades.
The article points out, counties with fewer than 100,000 people lost 17,500 businesses since the financial crisis, while counties with more than one million residents added 99,000. The largest metropolitan areas have almost 10 percent more jobs, while rural areas have fewer than before.
While articles like this and others pose the question about whether rural America can be saved, there is seemingly a lack of recognition that urban dwellers and rural residents don’t have enough conversations or understand the concerns of the other group. To that point, Illinois has long allowed some regions to create policies best for their community while understanding what works for Chicago doesn’t necessarily work for Northwest Illinois.
This recognition was “baked into” our laws in Illinois and has allowed urban centers like the City of Chicago and Cook County to set a minimum wage that is higher than rural areas like I represent in Northwest Illinois. Both the business community and Republicans pushed to continue to allow regional differences on issues like increasing the minimum wage in the recent public policy debate over raising the minimum wage.
However, this concept, and good faith negotiations, went out the window with the “Statewide Fight for $15.” During his inaugural remarks, Governor Pritzker preached bipartisanship, but so far, the most bipartisan legislative action on a controversial topic has been opposition to Pritzker’s minimum wage increase, with all Republicans and a few fiscally-minded Democrats opposing this increase.
The impact of a $15/hour minimum wage on small business will be significant in rural Illinois. Pinecrest Community, a skilled care and rehabilitation facility in Mt. Morris, reported the cumulative impact over the next six years will be over $840,000, which will likely lead to consideration of reducing employee benefits, headcount, and/or the size of their nursing home. I have heard countless stories like theirs from within our region.
The only way local governments will make up the costs to provide for a near-doubling of the minimum wage is to cut services, raise taxes (think property taxes), or both. With property taxes topping the list of concerns of most Illinoisans, the population exodus may only be accelerated.
I am most worried about the impact on inflation caused by this increase on our senior citizens. While costs will go up for everyone to cover this higher minimum wage, those on fixed incomes like our Seniors on Social Security will be hardest hit by the inflationary cost increase.
Republicans and Democrats who opposed this increase did not do so because they do not support a living wage. Many of us harbor a recognition that a living wage is different in Northwest than in Northeast Illinois. I was recently served an example of this when I went to a sporting event in Chicago and had to pay $67 a day in parking fees while visiting.
To the question of can rural America be saved — the answer is yes with a qualifier. Yes, we can save ourselves, but only when our public policies allow us the ability to do so. Our regional differences should be recognized and enshrined in some of our public policies, it is that simple.