‘Rural America is Not an Economic Liability’

In this photo taken Oct. 16, 2014, dusk descends over the small rural town of Yuma, eastern Colorado. This farming hamlet of 3,200 near the Nebraska border is home to an increasing number of Latino immigrants.

In this photo taken Oct. 16, 2014, dusk descends over the small rural town of Yuma, eastern Colorado. This farming hamlet of 3,200 near the Nebraska border is home to an increasing number of Latino immigrants. AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

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A think-tank drills down into the variation across the nation’s rural economies and looks for where opportunities might lie.

Rural America as a whole has struggled with population loss and sluggish job growth during the past decade, but some areas have managed to buck these trends and may serve as bright spots for those focused on economic development outside of cities.

New research from the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank, attempts to highlight some of the assets rural areas might use to their advantage and also points out that the fortunes of rural communities differ widely by region and based on other factors.

“What we’re trying to drive home is that rural America is not an economic liability,” said Zoe Willingham, who co-authored the center’s policy brief.

When President Trump was elected in 2016 with strong support in rural swaths of the country it drew fresh attention to the economic difficulties some of those areas are facing.

The Center for American Progress is closely aligned with the Democratic party and the group’s research on rural issues comes in the run up to the 2020 presidential election.

Some of what CAP covers in its latest report will be familiar to those who track rural economic development. 

For example, the authors emphasize how immigrants moving into rural areas can help fill jobs and offset population declines, while noting the economic development potential of outdoor recreation on public lands and renewable energy programs.

They also suggest that there are positive developments with farmers finding new ways to market their goods through local and regional “food hubs,” and that there are options for small and medium-sized manufacturers to tap into global markets to sell specialty goods.

But reinventing a rural economy that has seen hundreds or thousands of jobs disappear after a local industry collapses typically does not happen overnight. And it can be made more difficult when governments are dealing with an eroding tax base or deteriorating infrastructure.

What’s perhaps most notable about the group’s policy brief and the body of research that it builds on is the variation it shows in economic health in places across rural America.

Even after the Great Recession ended in 2009, rural areas in places like the Great Plains, New York and northern Pennsylvania continued to shed jobs, the brief points out. But the same was not true in parts of the Great Lakes region, Nevada, Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.

Some of CAP’s analysis relies on a “rural-urban continuum” defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This framework has nine categories ranging from metro counties with populations of one million or more, to rural counties with fewer than 2,000 people in urban areas and no adjacent metro counties.

Looking at counties along that continuum shows that even during the recession large and medium-sized metropolitan areas continued to see some employment growth. In comparison,  after the downturn ended, smaller non-metro counties saw anemic job gains, or losses.

Similarly, population declines in rural counties vary by region. Counties in the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and Northeast have seen some of the biggest losses, while rural counties around the western U.S. and pockets of the Dakotas with energy industry jobs posted gains.

Trump during his time in office has pushed for regulatory rollbacks and other policies favored by the mining, oil and gas industries. These sectors have long been economic mainstays in rural regions, but have also seen leaner years recently amid market shifts and other changes.

Farmers, meanwhile, have taken financial hits as the president’s positions on trade have triggered disputes with China, depressing demand for American agricultural goods there.

A main goal of CAP’s recent policy brief and related reports is to fight stereotypes and misconceptions about rural America, Willingham said. An outsized amount of the discussion about the nation’s rural areas, in her view, has focused on white, blue collar workers in the Midwest. 

But this isn’t an accurate characterization of how all of rural America looks. The brief says, for instance, that 21% of growing rural places nationwide owe their population gains to immigrants, who have filled jobs in fields ranging from agriculture to medicine.

If certain areas or demographics get overlooked in policy debates, Willingham added, “you’re not actually solving any problems.”

A copy of the policy brief can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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