Chauncey Moran, vice chairman of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve and a volunteer stream monitor for Yellow Dog River
The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve in Marquette County, Michigan, an area that has bucked population decline trends in part by capitalizing on its outdoor amenities. John Flesher/AP

How Rural America Is Saving Itself

The New York Times is the latest outlet to ask “can rural America be saved?” They’re asking the wrong question.

Rural regions dominate the American landscape, comprising 97 percent of the country’s land mass. While 20 percent of Americans live in these regions, many still doubt their importance in the 21st century. A new wave of commentary and reports have tackled a question on many urban Americans’ minds: can rural America be “saved”? One of these, a New York Times op-ed by Eduardo Porter, went as far as to say, “one thing seems clear...nobody—not experts or policymakers or people in these communities—seems to know quite how to pick rural America up.” With stagnant or declining populations in many rural counties, and “superstar cities” hogging most of the economic growth, Porter’s view would have us believe that rural life is fading away.

I’ve spent the past four years living in and researching rural communities in Michigan and Wisconsin, trying to understand how rural people use modern technology to further their livelihoods. Rural businesses and economic developers have many tools at their disposal to do what makes the most sense for their communities. But an economic growth perspective—largely a result of neoliberal economic policies—makes assumptions about what success looks like. And while the growth prospects of rural America may come across as dire, accounts such as Porter’s largely ignore the work being done on the ground by rural communities to save themselves.

The insistence that no one out there knows how to solve problems of the rural economy is a false and misleading one. There are decades of research that have identified paths forward that rural communities are already following and flourishing on. While rural regions may not be swimming in investment capital, they are awash in local pride and tight-knit communities. Many research studies have found that connections within a local community (i.e., bridging social capital) are one of the most valuable assets leading rural businesses to success. Place-making, a collaborative process to rethink public spaces to maximize their value for everyone, has become another favorite tactic of rural economic developers.

Public land and other land-based amenities are boons for rural communities, increasing populations in amenity-rich rural counties. Houghton and Marquette Counties in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan have bucked population trends, partially through an investment in place-making and expanding outdoor opportunities, such as a massive mountain biking community. And of course, wouldn’t it be wonderful if state and federal governments actually funded progressive rural infrastructure projects rather than waiting for crumbling infrastructure to become PR nightmares?

What’s more, there are still some economic sectors where the demand in rural areas is higher than the supply. As the second-largest economic sector providing jobs in rural counties, manufacturing continues to be a great resource for local economies. With recent pushes for “green” and domestic manufacturing, rural manufacturers are facing nationwide shortages of workers. At the same time, a new Gallup poll finds that many urban-dwellers actually want to move to rural areas.

So why the disconnect? The people that I’ve spoken to in the course of my research on rural communities and economic development have emphasized that its talent barriers are largely due to external factors that could arguably be improved if policymakers were truly committed to revitalizing rural areas. A systematic defunding at the state level through most of the first part of this century, paired with a de-emphasis of vocational training in favor of 4-year colleges, has meant that the talent simply isn’t there. An emphasis on property taxes as a primary funding source for public education has hit rural areas particularly hard. A higher proportion of elderly and low-income populations means that rural school districts simply don’t have access to the funds (without state and federal initiatives) to do much of what would be useful for them to help “recover” the rural economy.

The ability to attract high-tech companies has become a yardstick for measuring the success of a region. There are indeed major barriers to convincing large companies to relocate to rural areas, as Porter notes in his op-ed, such as access to talent and broadband infrastructure. But economic developers and municipalities in rural America aren’t stupid, and don’t believe that they can compete with supercities to draw in this development. A focus on single industries, such as mining in the upper midwestern United States, already destroyed many rural economies (and their environments) in the 20th century. Progressive rural communities that are thinking about these problems don’t see tech as a sole savior.  

Instead, the tech industry is one asset that rural communities can support at a scale that makes sense for them. Michigan’s rural communities are full of organizations doing work to support the expansion of the tech industry. The MTEC SmartZone located in Houghton, Michigan, over 200 miles away from the closest metropolitan area, runs a business accelerator that supports budding local tech entrepreneurs in building and growing their companies locally. Their accelerator program runs three cohorts a year, and collectively their programming has led to over 700 local jobs created since 2011.

Coworking spaces like this one in Hancock, Michigan, have begun to crop up across rural U.S. communities. (Sarah Bird)

One group of high-tech workers that seem promising is remote workers. In Newaygo, Michigan, Digital Works trains local residents to work as remote IT customer support—stable positions that make sense for people living in rural areas who may not have access to higher education. While an over-saturation of co-working spaces in large cities has led critics to question their usefulness, co-working spaces have also begun to pop up in rural communities from Colorado to Michigan and beyond to support remote workers and small businesses with flexible needs. People want to move to rural areas, and given the growing affordability crisis in urban areas, maybe they should. Rather than focus on attracting large tech companies, remote workers could be a small, but potentially fruitful, population of future rural citizens who would enjoy the amenities rural towns have to offer.

We live under economic regimes that have decided that success is perpetual economic growth, while simultaneously divesting from the communities where investment is needed the most. What if an overarching economic mission of growth isn’t actually what rural places want or need? Recent research has found there are proportionally more entrepreneurs in rural areas than urban, but that rural entrepreneurs were more likely to see their business as successful when they started it to provide for their family, rather than as a mechanism for accumulating wealth. Rethinking what economic success looks like will be key to the success of our rural communities.

A major problem here is that urban-based commenters think about rural areas and their unique features as deficits. Instead of portraying aging and stagnant populations as a problem that needs to be fixed, what happens when we think of them as opportunities to learn about sustainability and the future? Rather than constantly harping on Internet infrastructure and access as the keystone technological issues of rural America, what experiences do rural people bring to the table that help us build a future digital world that can be equitable for everyone? Rural values related to neighborliness and tight-knight communities can be looked to by technology designers to create more open and welcoming online spaces. Remote and spread-out populations can teach us a lesson about how to incentivize user-generated content on platforms like Yelp and Wikipedia.

We treat rural communities as if they are just behind the times and waiting to catch up. When we turn to emerging American supercities as bastions of the future, we lose what we can learn from rural communities. Porter asked, “can rural America be saved?” It’s too late for the editorial offices of the New York Times to save rural America; it’s already saving itself.

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