Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy answers a question during a debate held in Bristol, Va., on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)
Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy answers a question during a debate held in Bristol, Va., on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (David Crigger/Bristol Herald Courier via AP)

Southwest Virginia and Southside are struggling. What’s the solution to re-energize their economy?

BRISTOL-Historically, Southwest Virginia and Southside have had the two highest poverty rates in the Commonwealth. More than 50% of Southwest households either live in poverty or earn less than the basic cost of living, according to a United Way study. The five poorest cities and counties exist here, with average salaries ranging from $30,000 to $32,000 between them. How can a politician fix that problem? Moderators asked Democratic candidates for governor to outline their solutions in Thursday’s debate. 

Most did it in very familiar ways, focusing on education. Former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe said companies need an educated workforce before they’ll move in. 

“The most important thing we can do is fix the education system if we want to create jobs in Southwest Virginia,” McAuliffe said. “No question about it, businesses would love to come here. This is what people want to do. They want to go where the quality of life is great. But we’ve got to fix our education system.” 

As far as how that happens, McAuliffe outlined a few points. First, he wants to raise teacher pay above the national average in order to recruit teachers. 

“It’s a disgrace that we’re down 1,000 teachers today,” McAuliffe said. “They go to other states because they get paid more.” 

Both claims are 100% accurate. Virginia is the 12th wealthiest state in the U.S. but ranks 32nd in teacher pay, according to the Virginia Education Association. In 2019, the Education Law Center gave Virginia “D” grades for both its funding level and funding effort in public schools. And when it comes to the shortage, we’ve outlined that issue before. Even before the pandemic in 2020, Virginia faced on average a shortage of 1,000 teachers each year. That leads to problems in places like Southside and Southwest Virginia, as fewer teachers lead to increased class sizes. That just adds to more frustration and stress for teachers, who look for other options. 

But to fund education, you need a stronger economy. That was McAuliffe’s second point. He proposed building Virginia’s first economic development hub in the area. McAuliffe believes a development hub, with investments to help expand or launch local companies, would work here. 

Giving Money Back to Southwest Virginia

Another candidate proposed investments of a different kind. Del. Lee Carter argued the state’s overall economic growth model is broken. 

“Our economic development model has been relying on giving your money, the public money, to massive out-of-state corporations and telling them ‘we need you to come here, pretty please, Mr. Billionaire, won’t you give us some jobs’,” Carter said. “And it hasn’t worked. It’s made the problem of unaffordability in Northern Virginia, and Richmond and Hampton Roads much worse and it hasn’t solved the problem of lack of opportunity in Southwest and Southside.” 

Instead of giving the money to corporations, Carter said he wants to give these incentives and investments to local residents. 

“I’m going to give that money to you and say this is the startup capital you need to start your business that you own,” Carter said. “The next time we have an economic crisis, the people making economic decisions for Virginia are the people who live and work in Virginia.” 

Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy detailed her own form of economic investment. Foy told the audience she would fight for a $15 minimum wage, one that “starts sooner rather than later.” 

By that, she’s referring to the way Virginia’s minimum wage increase is set up. It rose to $9.50 on May 1. Then, under the bill passed last year, it will increase again to $11 in Jan. 2022. A third increase, this time to $12, comes Jan. 2023. 

But then things stall out. After it reaches $12, the Virginia Employment Commission and two other state agencies will conduct a study, observing the impact raising the minimum wage had on local residents. They’ll submit the results to the General Assembly, which will have to vote again to fully raise the minimum to $15 at that point. 

In addition, Foy said she would fight for paid sick days, paid family medical leave and more union jobs in the Commonwealth. 

More Focus on Education

The final two candidates went back to education, when asked how to improve Southwest Virginia’s economy. 

“If we’re going to grow jobs in Southwest Virginia, this is connected to our education system,” State Sen. Jennifer McClellan said. “We need to ensure we are fully funding all of our education needs here, including support services to serve low income students that have higher wraparound service needs than other students. Then we need to make sure we’re closing the broadband gap. Then we will be able to attract businesses to come here.”

McClellan said the state could focus on businesses already in the area, providing support to help them grow. 

“[And they’ll] stay here because they’ll have an educated workforce,” McClellan said. “We also have to make sure we’re prioritizing historically disadvantaged communities like Southside or Southwest in any economic development and workforce development programs. Too often, we focus on the other parts of the state that already have jobs and don’t need the economic development as much.” 

While he also focused on education, current lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax came at it from a construction standpoint. 

Fairfax outlined what he called a 40-30-10 plan. That means rebuilding and reimagining every public school that’s at least 40 years old. It includes a $30 billion investment, with construction done over the course of 10 years.

The need is there. Out of 2,068 schools, 52% are at least 50 years old. A total of 614 or 29.6%, are at least 60.  

“[Southwest] is a region that too often feels like it’s been left behind because it has in fact been left behind by those in power,” Fairfax said. “What we need now more than ever are transformational intergenerational investments in this community.”

Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at brian@vadogwood.com.