During 2022 I spent time in rural Oregon and Mississippi talking with state and local government officials, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, researchers, and business owners about the challenges and opportunities of living and working in rural communities. In Oregon, I visited four counties on the eastern and southern borders of the state, characterized by its remoteness, sparse population, and semi-desert terrain. Much of the area is ranchland where 100,000 beef cattle range free over public and private lands. The population is predominantly white and aging, with pockets of growing Hispanic communities. In Mississippi, I interviewed people in five counties in the Delta. This is a flat, fertile alluvial plain in which grows cotton, rice, corn, and soybeans. Its population is mainly black and is among the poorest in the nation. My conversations in these quite different regions were rich and wide-ranging, from which I observed seven common themes that have broad applicability well beyond Oregon and Mississippi.
1. There is a strong sense in rural communities that they are ignored by the government and by those with resources, creating increasing cultural and political cleavages that benefit neither urban nor rural people. Some of this is the result of economic changes that have upended livelihoods and some of it is due to generations of racism and neglect. The need for cross-community conversations and reconciliation has never been more urgent.
2. Limited capacity in rural communities is a critical issue, one that needs to be addressed not simply by importing expertise from elsewhere, but by investing in local people and organizations to build their own ability to articulate their needs and priorities, and to compete for state and federal funds.
3. In every state there is an organizational infrastructure of regional development organizations and hubs that can be partnered with, invested in, and strengthened to provide effective and coordinated services to the rural population, including older adults. 4. A shortage of affordable and safe housing is a common theme across rural America, with disproportionate impacts on older populations. A lack of maintenance of existing housing stock and little new housing development leaves very limited options for those wishing to “age in place.” Creative strategies by housing agencies and housing associations can make a huge difference in the prospects for rural communities. 5. For some economically-distressed communities, a focus on building new futures out of strong historical, cultural, architectural, or other assets can be a winning strategy. Given the right conditions, local entrepreneurs and investors can convert these assets into opportunities for jobs and new development. 6. Traveling long distances to access basic health, education, employment, and shopping has become the way of life for many rural communities, but for those with limited transportation options, especially older adults, this can be a challenging, health-threatening, and isolating experience. Community transport, broadband deployment, telehealth, investing in local health and educational facilities, incentives to attract medical staff, and building local food systems are being pursued in many rural areas as ways to halt population decline and improve the quality of life for all residents. 7. Economic development increasingly means not waiting for some company to relocate to the community, but engaging actively in promoting and supporting entrepreneurship. Experience from across the country shows that investing in people and their ideas is an effective rural economic development strategy.