Warren Dunn

Know the Type of County You Live In

In 1995, the Department of Agriculture produced a report entitled “Understanding Rural America.” It described the challenges faced by six different types of rural counties: Farming Counties, Manufacturing Counties, Services Counties, Retirement-Destination Counties, Federal Lands Counties, and Persistent Poverty Counties. Each of these types had their peculiar problems and each differed substantially in their demographic make-up. Although it is impossible to do justice to the report, or to the later one cited in this brief analysis, the conclusions of the study was that those counties with the greater chance of overcoming their problems recognized and accepted the type of county they already were (or had become), rather than the type of county they might wish to be. While it is certainly simplistic to say that what counties are is largely shaped by where they are, there are many factors to consider. The most important, including location, appear to be the educational attainment of the majority of the residents, the rate of population growth or decline, and the level of poverty. Each of these four characteristics is layered atop a host of other considerations, such as whether the county is scenic, whether it is served by a reasonably good transportation system, whether it has historic significance, whether it is located near or has in it an institution of higher learning, and so forth. These characteristics can, and most likely should, determine the nature of the response to the challenges facing any particular county.

On the whole, the results of the DOA 1995 report were positive about the then-present state of rural America, although the challenges were not ignored and the predications not always hopeful. In those days, prosperity in rural America was more dependent on agriculture and agriculture-related manufacturing. Income was going up, educational results were improving, population was increasing, albeit not at the rate it was increasing in urban America, and poverty was in decline. Overall, the nation was experiencing a robust economy and the future looked bright because the trends that were on the horizon – globalization, out-migration of the young and immigration by those in search of a better life – were not yet in full ascension.

Jump forward twelve years, just when the nation was on the brink of the second worst economic downturn in nearly eighty years. In 2007, a report by the highly regarded Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire entitled “Rural America in the 21st Century,” opened with the slightly ominous statement: “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.” Remember, this report was based on trends in place before the most recent economic downturn. A clearer call to arms could not be imagined. Has the call be answered? Yes and No. States have created grant programs aimed at rural infrastructure and waived taxes on new businesses. States have supported rural entrepreneurship and encouraged tourism. But several things had hampered progress. One is the simple lack of money. The problems are larger than the resources that can be applied to them, especially at the Federal level, although it is not much better at the state level. Another is the resistance to change that is characteristic of rural America, which should not be underrated, if nearly impossible to measure. Another is the increasing decline of the agricultural base of most rural counties except in those places where agribusiness has established its dominance. Still another is the return of out-migration from rural counties, with the inevitable result of an increasing tax burden on those who stay behind. None of these problems are shared by every rural county. Those who are close to major urban centers that have a stable economic base are targets for developers of bedroom communities and tourism has become a significant economic engine in those counties fortunate enough to have attractions.

The Carsey Institute report did not use exactly the same terms when identifying the types of rural counties as did the DOA 1995 report, but close enough. However, many of the conclusions were much the same and those that were different were fulfillment of predictions made in the previous report. For example, the Carsey report’s Amenity-rich areas, which parallels the Retirement-Destination Counties in the earlier report, had edged out the Agricultural and Agricultural/Manufacturing Counties in the number of jobs created and overall economic health. According to the report: “Baby boomers (are) retiring and moving to the country, people were buying second homes, and “footloose” professionals were choosing to settle in small towns with rich natural amenities or proximity to large cities.” While that remains true today, the economic downturn was accompanied by a deceleration of that trend. Also in decline were the Resource Dependent areas, which corresponds to the Farming and related industries counties of the 1995 report. Where these type of counties, which include logging, mining, and ranching, had traditionally led rural America in middle income jobs, by 2007 those jobs were shrinking as productivity and technological gains replaced human labor. Subsequent years were to see that trend intensify, also largely because of the unfolding economic meltdown.

Chronically Poor Counties (Persistent Poverty Counties in the earlier report) seem to be a permanent feature in the rural landscape. Whereas the 1995 report found poverty in rural America on the decline overall, the Institute of Research on Poverty in America found that present levels of poverty in rural areas have remained unchanged since 2009, but are at the highest point since 1993. This can fairly be interpreted as claiming that poverty, which in 1993 was on the decline, has stagnated since then.

In terms of proffered solutions, the two reports so many years apart appear to pretty much be on the same page. An admittedly truncated list includes:

  • Improving infrastructure and securing advanced telecommunications.
  • Encouraging the development of “niche” markets.
  • Creating partnerships to control costs by joint purchase of goods and services.
  • Improving the management labor skills by supporting educational opportunities.

…as well as dozens of others, many of which are well-known and tested with varying outcomes. Others may be too visionary or impractical in today’s economic environment, but all require consistent and determined civic leadership. Since the issuance of the 2007 report, which was in the nature of sounding an alarm, the situation in rural America has gotten worse, except for those counties that have very special situations.

However, be assured that the challenges facing rural America are not going ignored. Dozens of organizations are dedicated to the proposition that rural America can overcome its problems. Perhaps that will require that nostalgia for a better past is buried and that a clear eye is focused on what is while exploiting the assets that already exist but may need to be nurtured.