Spotlight Exclusives

Revitalizing Rural America

Zoe Willingham, Center for American Progress Zoe Willingham, Center for American Progress, posted on

As the Iowa caucus approached, presidential primary candidates feverishly wooed rural voters in Iowa with packed itineraries that scoured every corner of the state. Many campaigns have released rural policy platforms that largely focus on the struggles of family farms, healthcare affordability and access, and broadband. Despite the urgency of these issues and the importance of the rural economy to the wellbeing of all, the hours of televised debates have only superficially addressed the complex and varied challenges facing rural communities. This oversight means that proposed policies remain underdeveloped and will likely drop off the radar during the general election and the victor’s policy priorities after inauguration.

This would be a disastrous mistake. While some national statistics paint a rosy picture of a country rebounding from the great recession, the recovery has passed many Americans by. More than a decade after the economic crisis, rural employment levels have yet to reach pre-2008 levels. Not only was rural America left behind in the recovery—rural counties were much more adversely impacted by the Recession than their metropolitan counterparts in the first place, facing a larger drop in employment as a percentage of the population.

Many rural Americans seem to be losing hope that their economic lot will improve. Labor force participation in nonmetro areas has dropped by about 6 percentage points since 2009 but has increased among the metropolitan population, though the aging demographics of rural America likely contribute to this trend.

Rural America’s economic woes go back further than the recession. Rural poverty rates have been higher than those in urban areas for decades. Today, 16.4 percent of nonmetro Americans live in poverty, compared to 12.9 percent of metropolitan county residents. Out of all U.S. counties with persistent poverty, 85 percent are nonmetro—predominantly in the South. Among the nonmetro population, people of color are much more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts.

Despite this ongoing economic injustice, rural America does not seem to be much of a priority in Congress. The Department of Agriculture has gutted Obama-era anti-monopoly protections for farmers, folding the entire anti-monopoly enforcement bureau into the agricultural marketing unit of USDA, with barely a peep from most in Congress. Meanwhile, Senator Gillibrand’s (D-NY) newly-introduced bill to provide grants and technical assistance to regional rural partnerships has yet to even get a hearing in committee. America is long overdue for a concerted, large-scale federal effort to invest in rural economies.

In the absence of government action, rural communities have begun taking their destinies into their own hands, leveraging their assets to tackle local challenges head-on. By investing in their local natural resources, utilizing tight community bonds, or welcoming demographic change, small towns are finding new paths. For example, leaders in the North Fork Valley in Colorado have successfully transitioned their economy from one based on coal mining to one powered by a firm specializing in green technology and tourism. After years of building trust and community institutions, Madison, Nebraska, has been significantly strengthened by the addition of recent immigrants.

While rural areas are certainly not the inevitable casualties of changing technology and globalization that they are often portrayed as, rural communities cannot be expected to go it alone.

The extraordinary concentration of economic and political power in today’s economy means that rural Americans more than ever need government to be on the side of working families, independent farmers, and struggling entrepreneurs. Whether it’s securing a fair market price for one’s product, accessing affordable financial services, or securing the bargaining power of a union, fair rules of the road are vital to ensure working rural Americans can be part of the middle class.

Rebuilding rural America will also take concerted, strategic, and long-term investment in economically distressed areas. This investment must acknowledge and honor the diversity of rural communities, addressing the full range of challenges they face and the unique characteristics that make each community special. It should also involve community input and self-determination—it’s clear that many rural communities already know the answers to their problems and just lack the resources to implement them. With meaningful investment and strong protections against the abuse of economic power, rural communities can indeed have a vibrant future.

Zoe Willingham is a research associate for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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