I finally got up the courage to do it. For six months, I had heard about the book rising to the top of the best sellers list and raising the hackles of my fellow rural policy advocates. So I borrowed a friend’s Audible account (shh no telling) and listened to Hillbilly Elegy. Enough has been written about this at times elegantly written but extremely problematic book to take up the entirety of this blog’s existence but what disappointed me most about JD Vance’s memoir was the sense of hopelessness it conveyed about non-metropolitan America. Mr. Vance’s own journey to success is indeed a powerful story of the importance of how personal mentorship and personal perseverance can lead to individual success. But for me it’s biggest failure as a work is its pessimism–the doubt it consistently casts on the ability of rural communities like his own to enact real change. Times may seem dark for our less populated communities, but that doesn’t mean that the solution is to give up—these places have assets, that if tapped into, can revitalize a portion of our country that for too long has been neglected.
At MDC we believe the key to change in any community or region is building an infrastructure of opportunity, and the rural South is no exception. As we say in our 2016 report on economic mobility in North Carolina this means “the myriad systems that must be improved and aligned to prepare ever larger numbers of [individuals] for family-supporting work and a better shot of economic well-being.” This may look different in rural areas than it does in large cities, but it is the key to sustained, shared, economic prosperity. Of course, in rural areas the definition of immediate success or improved economic well-being may be different than in urban areas with more apparent paths to prosperity. Rural areas may, for instance, need to connect young people to jobs outside the region with the long-term goal of creating an economic environment that encourages their return.
Our past work in rural areas is helping us understand what an infrastructure of opportunity might look like in rural communities and importantly what non-metro areas consider a pathway to success. Whether it is addressing rural leadership, improving health outcomes, or addressing job quality, organizations and philanthropy in rural regions are making real efforts to enact effective change in their communities. For instance:
- A health conversion foundation in Danville, Virginia working with a group of young adults to create as path forward for a small city that saw its manufacturing base disappear.
- Rural community colleges in North Carolina developing new programs and services to meet the health needs of not only their students and faculty but also the surrounding community.
- Communities across Arkansas embracing the challenge of “Expecting More” out of their communities and demanding that their economic fate not be tied to low-wage work.
- Wilkes County North Carolina building on its history of entrepreneurship by bringing together businesses, the local community college system and the schools to create to education to career pathways.
The strategies described above not only show a variety of approaches, they show the diversity of the rural South. The challenges of isolated communities in Eastern Kentucky are often extremely different from those better connected to urban centers such as counties just outside the Research Triangle of North Carolina. And of course, as always issues of race are important differences across our region—the demographic make-up of the Ozarks of Arkansas is far different than a few hundred miles away than the Mississippi Delta.
Let’s look at health in rural communities as one example. Each year County Health Rankings analyzes data from every county in the US. In each of the South’s 13 states the worst health outcomes (including how healthy people feel while alive and length of life) were in rural areas.
The table below shows each state’s county with the worst health outcomes for rural counties in the South alongside its racial make-up and its connectivity to urban areas. You can see that nearly all white Grundy County, Tennessee with no city faces equally poor health outcomes as Robeson County, North Carolina, which contains a small city and an extremely diverse population.
Counties in Southern States Ranked Last
by Health Outcomes and Health Factors
Note on rural classification: According to the US Department of Agriculture, “completely rural” means an urban population less than 2,500, “small town/city” means an urban population between 2,500 and 19,999. “Small city population” means a non-metro area with an urban population larger than 20,000. “Metro” refers to a county classified by USDA as a metropolitan county
Source for racial demographics: US Census, American Fact Finder. Racial percentage included if category is more than 5 percent of the population. In Duval County (TX) the white population includes those who do not identify themselves as Latino as well
Beyond health, an even broader indicator of well-being and prosperity (economic mobility) is often worse in rural areas. Take a look at Wilson, North Carolina a small city that lies just outside in the prosperous Research Triangle Region. Data from the Equality of Opportunity Project show that of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution in the Wilson commuting zone, 40 percent will stay there as adults, another 32 percent will only move up one quintile, and only 3 percent will make it to the highest quintile. The graph below shows this in reality in stark detail:
Wilson, NC Commuting Zone
Indeed, according to a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution, of the ten lowest mobility rural counties in the US, nine were in the South.
Despite these challenges, MDC believes that there are ways for rural communities to build an infrastructure of opportunity in regions and communities that are too often left behind In our next post, we’ll look at the critical elements of an infrastructure of opportunity and how they are could be addressed in rural communities. In every case, we want to emphasize the importance of developing and implementing strategies that are rooted in place—just as there is no one solution for the challenges facing big cities, there is no panacea for non-metropolitan areas. And, we will also be looking to you—what does success in rural areas look like? For instance, is it the goal for all rural areas to find high wage jobs with career pathways for their young people in the town in which they grow up if those types of jobs are few and far between? Or is it to prepare them to find these opportunities elsewhere with the hope that they will return? Not easy questions to answer. Some of those critical elements are:
- The role of community colleges in enhancing rural growth
- Engaging employers and the business community.
- How social disparities in health can impact economic mobility and how systemic change can address it.
- National, state and local philanthropy’s role in creating systemic change
- How communities are addressing creating a trained workforce that can find better jobs in communities that often have seen those very jobs disappear.
- Creating partnerships between businesses, schools and non-profits to ensure that the entire community benefits from any economic advancement.
Increased attention on rural America should not mean that we must choose working in this part of our country over addressing the real challenges facing metropolitan America. It does mean that some of the same systemic change applied in our larger cities may also be possible in our less populated areas. We’re looking forward to a deep discussion with you as we explore these issues.