Rural America: It’s complicated

By Brian Depew

There are two closely held, widely believed narratives about rural America. The national media narrative, with roots in the 1980s farm crisis, is fatalistic. Rural places are dying. It lives on at the Brookings Institute and the New York Times, fueled by demographics that show decades of population decline across much of rural America.

The other narrative is woven by small town boosters. They point to new demographic data showing 30- to 49-year-olds returning to small towns. They talk with passion about new businesses and housing shortages.

The challenge is, neither narrative is wholly accurate. The truth is far more complex. The fatalists, caught in a crisis mindframe, are wrong. Rural America will not return to a vast buffalo commons anytime soon. Meanwhile, the boosters lead with great local successes while brushing over underlying trends.

To build a vibrant small town future in America, we must understand clearly what challenges we face and where emerging opportunities exist.

Many small towns are losing population, yet young families moving in often cannot find housing. Much small town infrastructure is in decline, but contractors, plumbers and electricians have more work than they can handle, often with new construction. Small town grocery stores are under pressure but community-led efforts to retain grocery stores have seen dramatic success.

America’s small town reality is complex. Some places thrive, others struggle. And in every small town there is a mix of success and challenge. Understanding these dynamics is the only path to a vibrant future.

Brian DePew (briand@cfra.org) is executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs, a private, nonprofit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action-oriented programs addressing social, economic and environmental issues.

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