To help rural America, policymakers must first understand it

To help rural America, policymakers must first understand it
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In too many places across the United States, the zip code where you were born determines whether or not you thrive. Nowhere is that more apparent than in rural America. For decades, rural communities have been the backbone of the United States’ economy. But today, they find themselves falling behind. This is exemplified by the fact that 85 percent of persistent-poverty counties – those that have experienced high levels of poverty for three or more decades – are rural.

The question is: How do we address small communities’ needs with holistic and comprehensive policies, driving local approaches and creating environments to spur prosperity and opportunity?

To answer that question, we must first understand rural America.


In an era of fragmentation, isolation and divisiveness, it is easy to discount rural communities and the people who live in them.

Economic transformations have contributed to vastly different levels of wealth creation and retainment, employment growth and access to resources and talent in rural and urban areas.

Policy conversations often focus on the differences between rural or urban communities. They often do not look for more holistic approaches to the issues affecting both or look to start to create equity between the two.

Yes, the economic reality our country faces is one of very stark contrasts in the economic opportunity across regions, where some communities have struggled while others have prospered. Continuing to build policy by only looking at the differences between urban and rural communities further contributes to fragmentation and cuts down on productive ideas and conversations.

The challenges facing rural America are not easy to resolve. But no major issue in this country’s history has been. We cannot allow the scale of the challenge to deter us from incremental progress or big ideas. We need to be open to new ideas, innovative strategies and new concepts.

First, we must understand two things:

  1. Rural America is not monolithic.
  2. Historically, people, products and goods have flowed between rural and urban regions.

There is not one answer to the question of how to drive rural prosperity. Important variables include: Better access to health care, education, transportation networks, broadband and safe drinking water; investments in infrastructure, community leadership skills and child care.

These issues are interconnected. The days of providing good health care but no transportation to get there, or safe drinking water but no economic development plan to support it, are over, or should be.

Thriving communities are finding it beneficial to consider assets holistically, looking for growth regionally, especially as technology fosters more interconnectivity among communities than ever before. That interconnectivity has the potential to lift communities up together, rather than placing urban and rural areas into competition.

Interconnectivity is not just about physical connections; it is also about connecting communities through technology and improving accessibility to services and resources. Technological change is exponential. Twenty years ago, parents would tell you not to get in a car with a stranger or meet someone on the internet. Today, we literally summon strangers to drive us, and many of us meet our spouses online.

As technology evolves, rural communities will have a chance to harness its power to their advantage. Urban and rural areas have resources and assets that are better leveraged together. The key is facilitating both physical connections and less-tangible cultural connections, ensuring communities view one another as vital to their shared economic viability.

As the economy continues to change, urban and rural communities must look at how they build off one another and provide opportunity together. As the National League of Cities points out in its “Bridging the Urban-Rural Economic Divide” report, “every $1 billion increase in rural manufacturing output produces a 16 percent increase in urban jobs, significant additional business-to-business transactions and statewide consumer spending and investment.”

The NLC report found clear benefits for “rural but connected economies,” including higher median incomes, more high-wage service jobs, higher population growth and greater educational attainment. These findings underscore the importance of interconnectedness. Over the next decade, communities that want to increase economic mobility will need to think regionally.

Finally, we need to think about the rural economy differently. Today agriculture is the driving force for many of our policy conversations. But agriculture represents only 6 percent of the rural economy. Various industries underpin rural economies, including manufacturing and recreation.

Historically, many rural economies have been extraction-based, where products were taken out of the land, shipped somewhere else, which meant that wealth flowed elsewhere. Rural communities will need to prioritize generating wealth that stays in their communities and meets demand across their region.

Rural America as a whole is increasing in population, and more people are deciding to move to rural areas with attractive scenic qualities or those near larger cities. This shows potential for more diverse and creative approaches, such as recreation- and quality of life-based rural economic strategies.

In fact, stories of innovation and opportunity are available across the country. Initiatives like Rural Homecoming, a national platform that allows any local community to participate for free to reconnect people with their rural hometowns, and tell the story of that community, are starting to pop up to provide better context around innovative rural communities.

Small businesses and entrepreneurs drive rural economic opportunity today in rural America. And on average, those rural small businesses are more resilient than their urban counterparts. These businesses are rooting wealth locally and creating positive spillover effects.

Policy solutions that address the implications outlined here should be focused on building community capacity, incentivizing regional planning and, even more important, investing in the implementation of strategies and visions with regional objectives.

Even small investments to fund key positions that build capacity – such as a regional entrepreneur coach, remote work organizers and centers, or broadband adoption lead – for multiple years have substantial impact. Investments in people charged with making connections open communities to greater possibilities and connect them to resources they would not otherwise find.

In a world where it feels like we are growing further apart, coming together will be the key to driving policy that leads to growth in rural communities.

Nathan Ohle is chief executive officer of Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP).