Opinion

New Opportunities for a Rural American Renaissance

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Posted: Jul 03, 2021 12:01 AM
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New Opportunities for a Rural American Renaissance

Source: AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File

Many argue rural America has been in steady decline for decades. It was particularly hard hit by the “Great Recession of 2007-09,” according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Task Force on Agricultural and Rural Prosperity, which was created by Executive Order in April of 2017.

The report found that rural Americans working in agriculture still lacked access to electronic connectivity, technology-oriented jobs, and businesses that otherwise improve quality of life in metro areas. The effects of the Great Recession, the report concluded, “still permeate throughout rural life, particularly for communities with high poverty rates, low educational attainment, and high unemployment.”

The stresses on an already stressed rural America were exacerbated by the lockdowns imposed during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-21, as numerous reports (here, here, and here, for example) confirm.

Responding to this crisis, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm has launched the "Prosperity Through Equity" project with a “Rural America Tour”-formatted survey  intended to create a national snapshot of the impact of the pandemic on rural American communities. Their hope is that multitudes will fill out the survey and join in this energetic undertaking.

Thomas P. Miller & Associates (TPMA), which has served clients in over 40 states and has employees in 13, seems well positioned to lead this project. TPMA spokesperson Andrea Hutchins stated that her company has worked for three decades to empower organizations and communities to reach their goals through strategic planning and partnerships that create positive, sustainable change.

The voluntary, anonymous Rural America Tour survey is intended as a collaborative approach to produce a body of information to be shared with think tanks and educational institutions – and the public. The survey seeks to identify community strengths, areas of need, and local recommendations for positive change. Results of the survey will be shared with thought leaders and researchers – and affected communities – to enhance research efforts to find solutions to rural community issues.

As Hutchins explains, “We are looking for places to have in-person discussions about the barriers to rural prosperity and ways to overcome them. We intend to use the data from these discussions in the survey report, which will be available to anyone. The more people who have access to the data, the better.” TPMA anticipates releasing its report on the survey in fall 2021.

According to TPMA president and CEO Tom Miller, “Rural communities are the backbone of America and drive our economy. We need to gain a better understanding of the real issues, not the assumed ones. We know there are communities who are doing truly innovative things to overcome. We want to learn from and hear from those communities.”

Miller says his company’s approach to economic development and community resiliency includes placing a high value on economic diversity, quality of place, resource alignment, and overall community vibrancy. TPMA’s data analysis is driven by research and community engagement, says Miller.  This allows the firm to identify community vulnerabilities and craft customized, comprehensive strategies to capitalize on emerging opportunities.

The goal of the “Rural American Tour,” Miller wrote, is to foster the collaborative use of data and feedback to identify best practices and develop equitable policy initiatives that can result in long-term sustainable solutions. The project aims to pinpoint the top five most pressing economic development challenges in rural America and explore sustainable options in a hackathon or similar public forum. The goal is to provide future-minded rural communities with new energy and new tools for revitalization.

The survey focuses on 10 areas of community need, including access to broadband internet, healthy food, quality healthcare, mental health programs and support, quality K-12 education, reliable transportation, affordable quality housing, living-wage jobs, childcare, well-maintained community infrastructure (sidewalks, streets, parks, and playgrounds), and safe streets (crime prevention).

Four years ago, before the pandemic, the Task Force on Agricultural and Rural Prosperity recommended reforms to combat existing detriments in five “calls to action” – electronic connectivity, quality of life, support for the workforce, technological innovation, and economic development. The hoped-for result was to be “a rural America with world-class resources, tools, and support to build robust, sustainable communities for generations to come.”

The most critical factor, the one that provides the platform for all others, is surely access to high-speed, high-capacity internet.  Connectivity enables many people to work from home, a vital element for most people considering relocating to or remaining in a rural area. But it’s even more important, as one federal official explained.

According to Douglas Wilson, Illinois state director of USDA Rural Development, “Electronic connectivity is more than an amenity – it connects households, schools, and healthcare centers to each other and to the rest of the world. It is a tool that enables increased productivity for farms, factories, forests, and small businesses. It is fundamental for economic development, innovation, advancements in technology, workforce readiness, and an improved quality of life.”

Both in the 2009 stimulus bill and in the 2020 pandemic legislation, the federal government has poured billions of dollars into states and communities to improve access to broadband internet, with much of that money earmarked for rural areas. But money alone does not ensure success, and the jury is still out on just how many communities are still with poor or nonexistent service.

That’s just one of the major issues facing rural America that the Prosperity Through Equity project seeks answers for. TPMA may have created the project, but the company believes that the data gathered and solutions uncovered through the hackathons and other brainstorming belong to everyone.