Rural America: It’s Complicated, Really Complicated

There are two closely held, and widely believed, narratives about rural America. The narrative in the national media is a fatalist one. Rural places are dying. The people are leaving.

This narrative has roots in the farm crisis. It lives on strong at the Brookings Institute and on the pages of The New York Times. It is fueled by demographic trends that show decades of population decline across many areas of the nation.

The other narrative is woven by small town boosters and cheerleaders. They point to new demographic data showing 30-49 year olds returning to small towns. They talk with passion about new businesses in their town, local housing shortages, and innovative rural arts and culture based strategies. All of these things are worth celebrating.

The challenge is, neither of these narratives is wholly accurate. The truth is far more complex.
The fatalists, caught in a crisis mind frame, are wrong. Rural America is not likely to return to a vast buffalo commons anytime soon.

Meanwhile, the boosters and cheerleaders too often lead their narrative with great local success stories while brushing over underlying trends.

To build a vibrant and sustainable future in small towns across the country we must tease the truth out of these two narratives. To create a great future, we must understand clearly what challenges we face and where emerging opportunities exist.

This starts with comforting a host of paradoxes that define rural and small town life. For instance:

  • The farm economy has boomed over the last decade. But the economic boost was not shared widely throughout our communities.
  • Small businesses are limited by access to capital. When we fill the finance gap, their businesses grow. Yet, it is undeniable that there are fewer businesses on our main street today than there were 50 years ago.
  • Populations are falling in many of our communities. Yet, young families are moving in at rates so high they often cannot find housing when they want to move to town.
  • Our built infrastructure is in decline. Yet it takes months to get a contractor, electrician, or plumber for a project. They all have more work than they can keep up with, much of it new construction.
  • Small town grocery stores are under pressure. We were among the first to sound the alarm. But already the narrative is reversing as community-led initiatives spring up to fill the gap.

The reality in rural America today is complex. There are places that are thriving. There are places that are struggling. And in every small town there is a mix of success and challenge.

Only a clear understanding of these dynamics will allow us to build a vibrant future.