Will the pandemic spur the awakening our rural heartland needs to build its American Dream?
By Jim King
America has learned much about itself in the past year. For our country’s rural heartland, this awakening may be the first step millions of families need to have a chance at building their own American Dream.
At a recent gathering of local community development experts, Executive Director Dave Clark of West Virginia-based Woodlands Development Group observed that the coronavirus pandemic had geographically accelerated pre-pandemic trends. Affluent or well-developed cities that were already prospering pulled relatively further ahead, while stagnating, underserved localities fell even further behind. As a result, he cautiously hoped, many Americans may have been jolted into awareness of a chasm that can no longer be ignored—the divide in the lived experience between those who are reaping the abundant opportunities of vibrant metropolitan areas and a rural remnant being abandoned in investment-starved, economically-asphyxiated hometowns and small communities.
With this pandemic-spurred awakening, policymakers are beginning to reckon with long-simmering questions about how our rural communities can adapt to a so-called “new normal” when they were only barely enduring the pre-coronavirus “old normal.” How can a family that lacks access to affordable and basic broadband internet service hope to participate in a virtual job market? Where does a small town look to recruit new employers to replace its pandemic-shuttered businesses when it can’t even offer sufficient quality housing to prevent the best and brightest of its own local workforce from moving to greener pastures elsewhere? Most of all, if America is truly the land of opportunity, then what can be said for the millions of families struggling to find economic survivability, let alone upward mobility, in the hollers and coalfields of America’s heartland that hasn’t seen a dedicated large-scale investment in its economic competitiveness since the New Deal and the War on Poverty?
The emerging post-pandemic challenge facing rural America yields no simple answers. However, while the solution, just like the problem, will not materialize overnight, an initial blueprint for our hometown communities to begin rebuilding their American Dream may be starting to take shape.
Recently introduced by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), the Rebuild Rural America Act offers small towns and Main Streets in Appalachia and across the nation’s countryside a fighting chance to compete with rising metropolitan hubs and keep pace with the demands of a rapidly evolving modern economy. Unlike some federal interventions that mandate a heavy-handed, top-down approach, this legislation would empower local leaders to leverage their expertise and on-the-ground insights to develop long-term strategic goals and plan capacity-building capital projects to realize them. Then, with the help of a newly-created $50 billion Rural Future Partnership Fund, these local leaders could readily access comprehensive federal grants and hard capital to adequately fund and execute those projects.
“Geography should not have to determine destiny in America. The symbiosis that has long existed between America’s great cities and her heartland communities that provide the cultural, intellectual and economic lifeblood to the residents of each endures to this day.”
Oftentimes, cash-strapped rural communities are at a significant disadvantage in competing against their better-resourced suburban and urban peers for state and federal dollars. Traditional Community Development Block Grants awarded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development frequently bypass rural areas. When state pass-through dollars are occasionally captured, they are usually swallowed up by basic infrastructure needs like sewers and water treatment plants that are operating well beyond their intended lifespan.
Moreover, high-poverty rural towns are uniquely encumbered in raising local revenue to meet matching-dollar grant requirements or to hire pricey lobbyists to help them access sophisticated funding mechanisms. These basic resource limitations leave creative public-private investment partnerships and complex aggregations of multiple narrowly-tailored program dollars to comprehensively fund big-ticket projects out of reach for most rural communities. As a result, rural municipalities rarely get the budgetary breathing room they need to look beyond the imminent shortfalls of next fiscal year, much less invest in future-facing modern infrastructure for their residents and businesses.
The Rebuild Rural America Act remedies this deteriorating cycle by explicitly dedicating Rural Future Partnership dollars for rural-only investments, offering a three-to-one prioritization for high-poverty areas without requiring local matching revenue. With the help of trained rural development specialists made freely available by the USDA, local leaders would have wide latitude to strategically channel these funds to specially-crafted projects, partnerships and services designed to meet their rural community’s unique needs.
Such local discretion would finally free up the necessary capital for many Appalachian communities to build out next-generation infrastructure like high-speed data and broadband networks to entice virtual workers and start-up businesses. Likewise, Fahe was able to work with Sen. Gillibrand to specifically include funding for workforce housing, which would allow small-town local governments to finance and construct modernized, efficient, and high-quality homes. Such workforce housing projects would not only serve to comfortably house a community’s working residents, but also incentivize young professionals and recent graduates to live and keep their talents in their hometowns and provide prospective employers with the residential infrastructure they need to relocate and source their human capital in areas that need quality jobs. Capacity-building investments like these could then be used to generate accompanying market demand for accountants, attorneys, restaurants, advertisers and a host of cottage industries and professions to support the needs of new employers and holistically revitalize the local economy.
Geography should not have to determine destiny in America. The pandemic may have finally opened our country’s eyes to the immense disparities between our rich and our poor, our rural and urban and our neighbors of all heritages and backgrounds, but it doesn’t mean we have to choose one future over another. The symbiosis that has long existed between America’s great cities and her heartland communities that provide the cultural, intellectual and economic lifeblood to the residents of each endures to this day. It needs only a renewed covenant of mutual good faith in the shared fortunes and human dignity of all people, no matter where they live.
Jim King is the President and CEO of Fahe.