Andrea Hutchins

Since the 1950s, Americans living in non-metropolitan counties have had a higher rate of poverty than those living in metropolitan areas. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Poverty in rural America was then exacerbated in the 1970s as big box stores moved in, often leading to the shuttering of once-thriving local retail businesses.

After 9/11 and the ensuing 2001 recession, manufacturing jobs, once the bulwark of many American small towns, rapidly dissipated. The American Prospect reported in 2009 (after the 2007-09 recession) that the U.S. had lost 42,000 factories since 2001, many in small towns and rural areas. The report would go on to warn that another 90,000 manufacturing jobs remained at risk.

Little did we know what lay ahead of us.

Since then, modern technology, high-quality smart phones, and the Internet of Things (IoT) have unfortunately, and to a vastly disproportionate degree, circumvented many rural areas, further isolating rural America from equitable access to rapidly growing technological advances and work-from-home career opportunities.

Fast Internet connections and reliable service for digital devices have further become, unlike any other time in recent history, essential for the survival of modern businesses, schools, medical facilities, and service-providers.

Rural communities have been left with insufficient tax revenues to maintain or upgrade rapidly deteriorating infrastructures, including water and sewer systems, streets and roads (especially in lower-income areas), and community-building initiatives. 

In many hollowed-out downtown areas, patrons are warned to watch for potholes; small businesses are barely hanging on; crime is intensifying; and schools are seeing declines in educational quality.

People are ultimately discovering that the rural towns America left behind may not provide the essentials for modern life.

At Thomas P. Miller & Associates (an enterprise working to empower organizations and communities across all 50 States to reach their goals through strategic planning and partnerships that create positive, sustainable change), we felt an onus of responsibility to carry out our recent ‘Rural America Tour and Prosperity Through Equity’ study, illuminating the urgency to revitalize rural America – and to do so radically.  

We feel that a bellwether is ultimately necessary to spotlight the apparent trends of disproportionate economic landscapes between America’s urban and rural communities.

We kicked off the Prosperity Through Equity initiative with a “Rural America Tour” to learn what rural Americans perceive to be their greatest needs. We asked them to consider needs that newly available federal dollars could address. We challenged them to contemplate areas of need that would inspire leaders to take action and augment.

Let’s be frank – COVID-19 hit rural communities hard, and the federal response has included significant funding  (much via CARES, America Rescue Plan and the USDA) for revitalization efforts. Large sums have been earmarked for expansion of rural broadband, with more anticipated in pending legislation. The pandemic, by forcing schools into distance learning, also provided further impetus to extend broadband deep into rural areas – 73% reported that access to internet connectivity was one of their most important needs, a higher statistic than those seeking access to quality healthcare.  Resources were also made available to provide for rural healthcare and other rural development needs. However, much of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, and even the CARES allocations from 2020, remain unspent and continue to lag in reaching those in immediate need of food and commodities. 

Through the voluntary and anonymous Rural America Tour survey, aimed at professionals in the workforce, economic development, and education space, we produced a body of information to be shared with think tanks, educational institutions, and the general public as a means of identifying community strengths, areas of need, and offering local recommendations for positive change.

We must continue to dive into the specific barriers rural Americans face across the country. Our survey, offered as a public service, aims at gaining a better understanding of their real issues, not just the assumed ones.

We recognize there are communities that are already doing truly innovative things to overcome devastation and neglect. Our goal is to identify best practices and develop equitable policy initiatives that can result in long-term, sustainable solutions which future-minded rural communities can use to generate new energy and access new tools for their revitalization.

It is beneficial to the entire nation that our rural communities not be left behind. It is in our hands to create lasting change.

Survey results can be found here.