After I wrote TheNewRural, I spent years traveling across America, talking about technology and rural economic development. Often as we discussed solutions for increasing prosperity off the beaten path, I’d have to remind folks that policymakers heard repeatedly from rural Americans, “We don’t want big government, we don’t believe in government assistance.” And I’d point out how damaging it might be if that wish were ever granted.
Because the truth is rural and small town America are enormously reliant on federal government programs; from USDA and farm subsidies to rural healthcare and telecommunications infrastructure. The federal Universal Service Fund, for example, pays carriers billions of dollars annually to deploy telecom infrastructure to rural and small communities. USF effectively subsidizes the price telecom carriers charge to their users in rural and small towns. Farmers received over $28B in supplemental aid from the USDA from 2018-2020 in addition to the billions of dollars they receive annually from other federal programs. Our local airport, Glacier Park International Airport, which is my favorite airport in the world, was about to spend $100M of mostly OPM (other people’s money) in an upgrade that’s been postponed due to COVID, but will likely happen within the next couple years.
As we face the ongoing challenges of the pandemic, it’s more important than ever that rural and small communities understand our reliance on federal assistance.
According to a recent study from Brookings:
Rural economies were the hardest hit by the 2008 recession and the slowest to recover. By 2017, average rural employment was still 2 percent lower than in 2007. Businesses were hit especially hard—in the first four years of the recovery, counties under 100,000 lost 17,500 businesses, while economies in counties over 1 million people added 99,000. COVID-19 will only exacerbate these pressures: The shutdown of commerce has already put small businesses, a key driver of rural economies, into an economic vise grip, and almost twice as many rural areas rely primarily on the recreation industry as urban areas.
The post-COVID future is still uncertain for rural and small town America. Our residents are hurting and we can’t afford to squander opportunities by relying on outdated mythologies regarding the role of federal, state, and local government in our success.