Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Report on rural America from the Carsey Institute: Problems, solutions and civic leadership

"Rural America is undergoing sweeping demographic, economic, and environmental changes. Whether they are harnessed effectively will depend on federal and state policies and community actions over the next decade." So begins Rural America in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Field, a report prepared by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire for a national meeting of rural advocates this month. It concludes, "Rural America in the twenty-first century must develop new relationships and new ways of doing things to ensure an economically prosperous, socially just, and environmentally healthy future. Tapping into the resourcefulness and creativity of rural people will be essential in addressing this challenge. However, they cannot do it alone. Rural communities need critical infrastructure, investment, capital, and services."

The report identifies "three rural Americas, sometimes distinct and sometimes overlapping:
• Amenity-rich areas, which are growing as Baby Boomers retire, as more people buy second homes, and as “footloose professionals” choose to settle in small towns with rich natural amenities or proximity to large cities." These areas "must work to ensure the successful integration of newcomers and long-time residents, avoid a two-tier system of wealthy residents and those who serve them, and protect the natural environment that attracted the amenity migrants," the report says.
• "Declining resource-dependent areas, which can no longer rely on agriculture, timber, mining, or related manufacturing industries to support a solid blue-collar middle class." Such areas "must develop programs to ameliorate the impact of economic decline and innovate to stem future population and job loss."
• "Chronically poor communities, where decades of resource extraction and underinvestment have left a legacy of poverty, low education, and broken civic institutions." They "must expand their human and social capital to break the chain of persistent poverty," the report says.

The report says it is based largely on "a series of interviews and policy roundtables in March and April 2007 with more than 80 Ford Foundation rural program grantees and other stakeholders." The foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation are the primary organizers of the first National Rural Assembly, an invitation-only event to be held in the Washington, D.C., area June 25-27. Here are a few more excerpts from the report:

The big problems: "The decline of the rural manufacturing industries and the continuing consolidation of agriculture mean fewer good jobs available for young adults, forcing them to seek employment elsewhere. The more remote rural places are seeing the greatest population loss, leaving some communities to “die a slow death.” Many rural communities have far fewer young families today, changing the feel and culture of the community and making it difficult to maintain quality schools and other institutions."

Entrepreneurship and environment: "Rural practitioners, however, also see opportunities, especially in entrepreneurship. Many rural development leaders argue that a growing proportion of workers will be self-employed. Jobs in the knowledge and creative economy are also likely to be an increasingly important part of rural America’s future. Rural leaders are looking to integrated development approaches, linking economic development to long-term resource management, social, and environmental goals. In addition, medical and financial services hold strong potential. On a deeper level, the core assets of rural areas — land, forests, water, renewable energy resources, and clean air — will continue to underpin the nation’s economy and hold strong potential for economic opportunities in rural communities. . . . Expanded broadband telecommunication is essential if rural areas are to be competitive in a global economy."

Civic leadership: "The rapid rate of change, declining effectiveness of traditional economic strategies, increasing environmental challenges, and demographic transitions require leadership to guide the community in new ways of thinking and doing. . . . Some respondents described their communities as conservative and risk-averse, places where calling for change and action is not part of the civic culture. The old leadership cadre is often resistant to change, accustomed to traditional ways of doing things that worked well for them in the “old economy.” New approaches of sharing power and bringing in younger and more diverse voices are threatening to them. Many describe county officials as remote from community affairs, more overtly political, and often dominated by big business. Democracy in some rural communities is weak, with a politics of “who you know,” rather than one based on issues. Some local communities have lost trust in local and larger government, and public participation has diminished. In more remote areas and in the smallest communities, county and state governments have come to play a larger role, yet these public entities are rarely accountable to local residents." Sounds like those places could use a good newspaper or broadcast station!

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