The Wall Street Journal recently ventured outside the concrete streets of New York and took a stroll down some gravel roads in rural America. What they found was not pretty. Rural America today has serious problems: an out of control drug problem, poor access to healthcare, declining populations, lack of a skilled work force, a rising crime rate, economic stagnation, and more. Their conclusion is that living in rural America is worse than living in the inner-city.
Their analysis relied heavily on statistics, which do not look good for rural locations. They show that crime rates in urban areas are declining, while they are on the rise in rural communities. Rural divorce rates have tripled in the past decade, well above the national average. Since 2010, seventy-nine rural hospitals have closed. Poverty rates, teen births, cancer rates, drug addiction, and college attainment rates all rank the worse compared to suburban and urban areas. While the WSJ article focused on the problems and – to a lesser extent – the causes, they totally ignored the solution.
While the causes for the current situation are many, they can be summed up in one word: neglect. During the Bush, Clinton, and Obama administrations, federal programs focused on help for urban areas. For the past 8 years, there has been a focus on rural development at USDA, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on rural development programs, and it has not made an appreciable difference. The Obama White House talked a lot about extending broadband to rural areas, but little was actually accomplished.
The article made much of the loss of manufacturing jobs in rural areas of the Corn Belt, but totally ignored the one industry that has invested billions in rural areas and actively seeks to be located there: the bioenergy sector. In fact, their business analysts totally discounted the contribution that agriculture makes to rural areas. A recent study by Indiana University documented the number of jobs and economic activity that a single livestock farm can bring to a county.
The political impact that rural America had at the ballot box last November has not been lost on some politicians. While the Trump administration has not fully implemented a rural strategy, they are taking some steps. The President called for major funding for infrastructure improvement which will include projects in rural areas. In addition, the top-heavy, rural development bureaucracy at USDA has been restructured which will hopefully be an improvement.
Indiana has shown that rural America can attract new businesses. State government, in cooperation with local economic development authorities, has attracted dozens of new business operations to Hoosier small towns and rural areas. Favorable tax rates and incentives, zoning cooperation, and community support can all be used to bring a new business to town. Another glaring omission from the WSJ story.
Yet, rural America’s future does not lie in federal programs, but rather in community action. If we want our small towns and rural areas to be better places to live, we need to take active roles. The small towns that are thriving today are those who had a vision – a vision of what they wanted their community to be. Rural America has always been about self-reliance and self-help. It is this rural spirit that the boys from New York missed. Rural America can be great again, with a little help from state and federal leaders and some hard work from the folks who live there.
- By Gary Truitt