On January 6, 2021

The future of rural

By Rob Riley

Over the past year, I’ve heard two very different narratives about rural America. The first is that rural people face enormous economic and social challenges and the federal government does little to help them. The second is that the coronavirus pandemic has turned rural places into refuges where the urban elite — with the ability to work high-paying jobs from anywhere — can use their wealth to bypass failings in rural infrastructure. In either scenario, today’s rural public policy is coming up short.

As Covid-19 upended urban places and economies, people found space and safety in rural communities. For many towns, this is the first influx of new (potential) residents in years; for some it has been a generation since their populations increased. This movement and the current attention to rural America presents an opportunity to rethink and restructure how we invest in healthy rural places.

President-elect Biden, who pledged to serve all Americans, can respond boldly to address the needs of large swaths of rural America where people feel left behind. In the first 100 days of his administration, he can prove that he wants to see real change and will act to secure broader prosperity.

Drawing on more than 20 years of working in communities across four rural states, we see actionable, specific opportunities for Biden to make federal policy work for rural places.

Here’s what we recommend:

Get current. Engage in genuine conversations in rural places about the role of the federal government. The pandemic aside, fundamental economic changes, limited career pathways, and crumbling (or non-existent) infrastructure plague many rural places. These challenges require public-private partnerships, directed by local needs and leadership. Many of the federal programs designed to address the underlying issues in rural places fail because they were designed for the rural reality of 1960, not of today. Let’s get current, understand why programs aren’t working, and make them better.

Appoint a leader. Elevate rural to the level it deserves in the president’s cabinet. Rural places are currently served through a web of programs spread across numerous federal agencies. One might think this approach would help address policy deficiencies, but in fact, when everyone is in charge, no one is. The Biden administration can send a strong message that it means business by putting someone clearly in charge of its rural agenda and creating a new Department of Rural Development dedicated to improving, centralizing, and deploying the support and services necessary for rural people and places to thrive.

Invest smarter. Invest in doing economic development differently in rural places. Federal employees work diligently on their mission, providing grants and other services to constituents as directed by statute. And yet, the available tools for solving complicated, systemic, and immediate issues are limited. To do economic development differently — and better — we need to eliminate programs that have limited utility, expand others that focus on building capacity in rural places, increase the flexible application of federal dollars, and move the measurement of economic development outcomes beyond one-dimensional (and fleeting) metrics like job creation.

Accentuate assets. Focus on and communicate about rural-urban connections rather than the divide. Rural places don’t benefit from being talked about as a monolith, a backwater, or fly-over country. Rather, we as a nation need to raise up narratives and policies that recognize differences in rural places across the country, and that celebrate and support the natural, community, and economic assets that define those communities and their relationship to nearby urban areas. The stereotype of the American dream is changing. We now have a tapestry of rural, suburban, and urban, and an opportunity to focus on collective prosperity rather than competition, exclusion, and negative trade-offs.

The first 100 days will show how the Biden presidency will serve all Americans. Yes, there is a pandemic raging, but the widening gulf between rural and urban, rich and poor, red and blue requires a new tone, a new path, and new solutions. Let’s get to it.

Rob Riley is president of the Northern Forest Center, which co-founded the national Rural Development Innovation Group with the Aspen Institute and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities.

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