How Do We Save Rural America?

There was a recent article in the Times (December 15th) by Eduardo Porter addressing the “hard truths” of what is happening in rural America. It was compelling in the sense that it brought home the story of what I see happening here in Chautauqua County.

Some of the facts it stated were worrisome:

¯ Rural America is getting old. The median age is 43, seven years older that city dwellers.

¯ Since the 2008 recession, counties with less than 100,000 people lost 17,500 businesses whereas Counties with more that 1 million gained 99,000 new firms.

¯ Manufacturing remains the strongest sector in rural America, but today there are fewer than “13 million workers in manufacturing across the entire economy.”

¯ In the “Eastern Heartland,” that area “roughly between the Mississippi River and the Atlantic coast, rural communities are doing particularly poorly.”

¯ We are experiencing “agglomeration” throughout the economy: “Innovative companies choose to locate where other successful, innovative companies are. That’s where they can find lots of highly skilled workers. The more densely packed these pools of talent are, the more workers can learn from each other and the more productive they become.”

A light went off when I thought about “agglomeration.” Why would Amazon choose two new headquarters right in the heart of New York City and in the Washington, D.C. metro area? These places are already over-populated with jammed highways and high costs of living. Answer: agglomeration! They want high-powered, concentrated pooled talent in one place. Rural America was never a consideration in Amazon’s decision. Even medium sized cities like Columbus, Ohio had no chance in this competition. Now, Google has announced that they are also ramping up employment in these same areas, and Apple is opening another headquarters in Austin, Texas which is already a tech center.

So, in light of these economic facts, what do we do in rural America? Is there a way for us to get some of our young people to return home? Is there a plan to rejuvenate rural America? As the article warns: “What if nothing really works?… Do we “return depopulated parts of rural America to the bison?”

The article concluded with these words: “The distress of 50 million Americans should concern everyone. Powerful economic forces are arrayed against rural America and, so far, efforts to turn it around have failed. Not every small town can be a tech hub, nor should it be. But, that can’t be the only answer.”

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.

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