Rural America's future isn't written

Rural America's future isn't written
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A recent New York Times opinion piece suggested that no one knows how stop the undermining of rural America from economic forces.

While these forces have driven a growing divide between urban and rural communities, we can’t allow the past or the scale of the challenge deter from incremental progress or big ideas.

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It is time to have a serious and thoughtful discussion about the issues that are affecting small towns across this country. In an era of fragmentation, isolation and divisiveness, it is easy to discount rural communities and the people who live in them. First, we must first understand two things:
  1. Rural America is not monolithic.
  2.  Historically, people and talent have flowed between rural and urban regions.

To get away from the disruptive and unproductive rhetoric about rural America, we must change our mindset, and consider that this conversation is not a case of urban vs rural.

We must also remember that the future of rural America is not written. A different model of economic development, including entrepreneurship and local wealth strategies holds great potential.

According to Pew Research, more than half of rural and urban residents say that people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do and lack understanding of the problems their communities face.

What strikes me is the similarity between rural and urban issues. Capacity is a core issue facing distressed communities of all sizes, but the lens through which they are viewed and the scale of solutions are both different.

Economic development has historically been smokestack chasing, offering incentives to draw companies into a region. You only have to look at competition for Amazon’s second headquarters to see that these strategies still drive much of the conversation.

Take a look at the list of top 20 candidates that Amazon identified; none of them were rural communities. That is not surprising, but it is important to understand why.

For small communities, the opportunity to draw in a big project that brings thousands of jobs is no longer an option. That does not mean that hope is lost, however. In the end, the real opportunity for growth in rural communities is through investing in small businesses and entrepreneurs.

Here are some ideas that would help drive more prosperity in rural America:

Focus on innovation and entrepreneurship. Most people would tell you that rural communities are not innovative, but the exact opposite is true.

These communities have less resources, access to markets and people, yet there are countless stories of impactful innovation that have yet to be told. 

According to a PBS Newshour analysis of Bureau of Economic Analysis data, the smaller the community, the higher the level of entrepreneurship and the more resilient those business are. 

The urban and rural stories of America are woven together. It is time to stop pitting urban and rural communities against one another and instead focus on how they are interdependent, complementary and how regional approaches can lead to opportunities for innovation and prosperity.

We must better understand the rural economy. Today, agriculture represents only 6 percent of the rural economy. Various industries underpin rural economies, including manufacturing and recreation.

That showcases the opportunity for growth in other areas of the rural economy and highlights the need to think differently about rural opportunity.

Change the conversation around “scale.” If you talk to almost anyone that does not live in a small town, they will tell you that the issue for rural communities is “scale.” We are talking about scale in an urban context. Scale looks and feels differently in the rural context.

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The impact of one job in a rural community is vastly different than the impact of one job in an urban community. It is time to shift the narrative and framework on how we consider economic opportunity for rural America.

There is not one answer to the question of how to drive rural prosperity. Access to good health care and education, infrastructure investments that provide access to transportation networks, safe drinking water and broadband, and funding for child care are all important pieces to this puzzle.

How can we as a country, help set the table for those small-business owners and entrepreneurs to invest in their community, drive economic outcomes and revitalize and recapture the beauty of rural America?

That is the question every policymaker, advocate and politician should be asking.

Nathan Ohle is executive director of the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP), a national network of partners providing technical assistance, training and opportunity to small rural communities in all 50 states.