Commentary: The great rural America paradox
A wise man once said that rural America has become viewed by a growing number of Americans as having a higher quality of life, not because of what it has, but rather because of what it does not have, like traffic, crime and crowds. This sentiment can be seen in the growing number of urban transplants that have made their way toward greener and more spacious pastures.
But, while many Americans equate living in the country with a simpler way of life, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The reality is that poverty in rural America is increasing, while opportunity continues to decline because of limited education, healthcare and broadband services. So, rural America being defined by what it does not have can also be a negative.
It’s the great rural America paradox.
The lack of technology, infrastructure and even basic services present major challenges for rural citizens. This is evident in rural classrooms, where nearly one in four U.S. kids attends school. Struggling rural school districts are grappling with teacher retention and lack of education technology that their urban counterparts take for granted, while seeing enrollment that is growing at a faster rate than anywhere else in America.
Top this off with increasing rural poverty that 41 percent of rural students live in daily, as well as an increasing number of students with special needs. There’s a misconception that rural America and schools are stable and financially secure. But, they face every challenge that urban schools do, and more.
That’s why Farm Bureau is supporting the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act which is up for reauthorization. This law helps rural schools and communities that are affected by declining revenue from timber harvests. This year alone, rural communities stand to lose more than $346 million for improvements to public schools and other valuable infrastructure and stewardship projects. Failing to reauthorize this bill jeopardizes the economies and education systems of more than 780 already-struggling rural counties and school districts in 41 states.
Teachers aren’t going to remain in rural areas without access to basic technology and services and neither will healthcare professionals and small business owners. Access to broadband plays a huge role in whether rural communities survive and flourish or wither and die.
As the number of rural doctors continues to decline, so do rural businesses. According to Inc. Magazine, 70 percent of business owners in rural America will need to transition their businesses to new owners by 2020. That is a staggering figure. And, by all counts, it appears that broadband access is a major component of the economic engine.
Many states across the nation are addressing rural technology challenges. One program in particular that is being utilized by many states is Connected Nation, a broadband adoption project to create connected communities. This program trains regional leaders how to work with their communities to secure more internet access and connect more people. They make up community planning teams that help groups engage in teaching computer classes, mentor older adults and help with online job searches.
It is Connected Nation’s philosophy that rural communities benefit through assessment, planning and self help, while citizens benefit through expanded access to relevant technology. Importantly, the private sector benefits from a more investment-friendly environment and increasingly tech-savvy consumers.
So, while rural America remains for many an idyllic land of open spaces and simpler ways of life, those who live there know the real deal. Access to basic services continues to be essential for rural communities and the competitiveness of our nation. Rural residents and their children shouldn’t be kept at a disadvantage by inadequate education, healthcare and business opportunities. It’s time to get past the paradox.