To Live or Die in Rural America
[imgbelt img=Bendnew.jpg]The biggest challenge to the potential of New Rural may be from our increasingly urban leadership and its benign neglect of most things rural.
Rural America faces four fundamental challenges.
• It is highly diverse, so “big, top-down” solutions rarely work.
This is one of the reasons that Old Ag has very concentrated distribution of benefits. A concentrated number of people in a concentrated number of rural areas may benefit, but not the majority.
•Most of Rural America (RA) is losing population, relatively and absolutely.
As increasingly the best educated and middle class leave RA, economic disparities become greater and opportunity is harder to find. Leadership is harder to come by.
• Much of Rural America is defined by what it used to be, rather than what it hopes to be.
The economic ghosts of the past are a major barrier to progress. Faulkner was thinking of a mythical rural county when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
• Rural areas often see themselves as separate from each other and urban centers rather than being parts of regional economic and ecological systems.
Employers, shoppers, patients, and air quality all behave in a regional context. Rural communities must do the same. Often federal and state policies make it harder for rural communities to behave regionally, encouraging competition over cooperation.
Goals for 21st Century New Rural Policy
Today, rural public policy is “…unfocused, outdated, and ineffective.” Mark Drabenstott, in “Past Silos and Smokestacks: Transforming the Rural Economy in the Midwest,” proposes a new framework:
•Help rural communities and counties think regionally to compete globally.
•Focus public investments on transforming economic opportunities rooted in distinct economic strengths, not on smokestack chasing.
•Spur innovation and entrepreneurship, turning ideas and innovations into economic progress.
•Create a world-class entrepreneurial climate and innovation culture to grow a landscape of new companies, in the process recycling the region’s considerable wealth.
But how do we get there? New rural policy must not start with Ag. It must start with a broader, more diversified vision. New Ag should not be excluded, but to start there, experience tells us, too often means we will stay there. (For the difference between New Ag and Old Ag, see Part One.)
Getting to New Rural
What would be a good list of capacities critical to developing new rural economies?
[imgcontainer left] [img:Bendoldmill.jpg] [source]AxoplasmA mill from Bend, Oregon’s economic past.
Equal Access to Core Services Federal and state policies often unintentionally discriminate against rural areas.
Since at least the Carter Administration, economy of scale has been favored in public policy over universal access. In areas like transportation, communications infrastructure, K-12 education, and healthcare, economy of scale has benefited more populated areas over less populated ones.
This pattern seems to have intensified in the Obama Administration. One example is the Administration’s primary education reform effort – Race to the Top (RTT). As Caitlin Howley pointed out in the Daily Yonder, “RTT asks states to implement reforms that are difficult, if not impossible, for many rural places.”
RTT is far from the only example. The administration’s Social Innovation Fund, a recent competitive grant program, also largely ignored rural communities.
Almost none of the selected recipients were rurally based, even if they mentioned rural in their application. Similarly, Teach for America, which has been a favorite of the Obama Administration, is a largely urban program.
What this amounts to is a pattern of unintended economic segregation.
[imgcontainer left] [img:Minerwind.jpg] [source]Rural Learning CenterThe people in Miner County, South Dakota, took charge of their economy — and changed their future. In 2001, Howard, South Dakota, became the first municipality to own and operate its own wind turbines. This is a photo of a ceremony where the turbines were commissioned.