This past summer, I spent three months in Red Cloud working on economic development through Rural Futures Institute Student Serviceship. While there, I was able to see firsthand how a rural Midwest town navigates numerous issues.
Surprisingly, coming up with money didn’t seem to be the biggest hurdle. As the town considered different options, we continued to peg ourselves on the city’s human — not economic — resources.
Rural population decline in Nebraska has been marching steadily since the Great Depression. In recent decades, the government has combated the resulting economic issues with many programs. They typically come in the shape of grants or low-interest loans.
Many programs are available to any community, but some, such as USDA Rural Development programs, exist solely for rural areas. Even with these efforts to bring rural areas up-to-date and become economically sustainable, we still see many towns lagging.
Rural areas are, by definition, sparsely populated. However, trends beginning after World War II set in motion a rural American landscape that was brain drained and staggering from an incredibly fast drop in population in addition to the small workforce.
Throughout all of this change, these communities need to exist to make sure the world’s breadbasket is alive and well. After the ag crash in the 1980s, financial programs came into full force, and many communities were able to reap the benefits and become self-sustainable regional hubs. Yet, the vast majority of Nebraska villages and towns are still losing population.
This may seem obvious, but these programs do not simply give away money. The applications are rigorous and take years of dedicated effort to oversee. Large cities usually boast the organizational structure and have staff trained in economic development at hand for seizing these opportunities.
Small towns typically do not have either of these benefits. The city council meets once, maybe twice, a month, and economic developers are few. These towns subsist almost solely on boards of volunteers with families and full-time jobs to manage. Most people don’t have time to research grants — let alone write them.
Red Cloud is lucky enough to have a few people experienced in this process. Nevertheless, those same people called on college students to help with projects that they don’t have time for.
Many reasons people fled rural areas in the past are no longer valid. Two common attributes are that there is nothing to do and no opportunities. In one sense, rural communities do lack some entertainment venues and events. You can’t see Beyoncé live at the (beautiful) Red Cloud Opera House. But, even in Chicago, Beyoncé is a special guest.
This crosses over to the business world, too. Many jobs have moved out of the office building and into the home -- not to mention the hospitals, courthouses and schools, which still need skilled employees.
Additionally, opportunities to volunteer, lead civic groups or become an elected official make small communities ripe for professional development. If you’re looking to make a tangible difference in a community at a young age, rural places are where it can happen — and they want your help ASAP.
Saying small towns have nothing to offer isn’t a valid excuse anymore.
Outdated perceptions of what “rural” means continue to make a considerable impact on the human potential of small communities. It is imperative that we begin giving rural communities credit for the amazing things they offer. Without a concerted effort behind this change, economic revitalization will continue to move slowly if at all.
Current financial incentives solve half of the puzzle. We need to encourage people to move to rural areas and adjust bureaucratic processes to solve the other half.