interior view of a greenhouse with rows of plants

Outside Investment or Self-Reliance for Rural Success?

Recently I came across a couple articles that questioned the economic viability of rural areas in large parts of this country. These are places that are too far outside metropolitan […]

Recently I came across a couple articles that questioned the economic viability of rural areas in large parts of this country. These are places that are too far outside metropolitan areas to be directly influenced by the metros’ economic growth.

The two articles I read took different approaches. One, penned by Urbanophile’s Aaron Renn, argued that state governments need to target investments to the metros and to bring outlying rural areas into their orbits. What many states have been doing instead is spreading limited resources from urban areas into rural areas, regardless of whether the latter have shown signs that they can return tangible benefits from these investments.

Renn says:

“Realistically, most of these small industrial cities and rural areas are not positioned to go it alone and they shouldn’t be supported by the state in attempting to do so. They need to align with a winning team.”
The winning team in Renn's case would be Indianapolis, capital of his home state of Indiana and a relatively prosperous mid-sized city, or maybe Bloomington, home of a big state university which draws lots of research dollars and young families.

The other article responds that it’s unrealistic to expect this strategy to succeed, given the trends of persistent long-term unemployment and deep-rooted poverty in many rural locales. Instead, the latter author says, rural areas should pursue a policy of “sustainable subsistence.”

Timothy Collins writes:

“Let’s banish the notion of global competitiveness as the primary goal for rural areas and communities. Let’s focus on capacity building and improving the quality of life. We need to create jobs with adequate pay for bountiful, but sustainable subsistence. We need to consider the crucial importance of reversing environmental damage and building small, manageable, and sustainable communities.”

The term subsistence makes me think of raising your own food, as opposed to buying food imported from elsewhere. Taken to its logical conclusion, it would also mean providing your own electricity rather than relying on the grid, and perhaps sharing resources such as vehicles and retail/office space cooperatively to minimize costs. Obviously there are examples of these practices going on now in some rural communities. But the author seems to say this should be a widespread approach because the never-ending strategy to draw outsiders to invest in isolated rural places has proven to be a loser. What ends up happening is rural areas get stuck with low-wage jobs in call centers and such, and they don't really get a leg up on the economic ladder.

Closer to where I live, in Virginia, a town planning commissioner wrote an editorial in the local daily paper bemoaning the lack of incentives for young people to stay in his community. He suggests the town should “steal” the young from its more rural neighbors. Interestingly, this is a town that until a recent spurt of growth had less than 10,000 residents, and it’s surrounded by cattle pastures and corn and soybean fields. So the competition between communities for pieces of the economic pie is hardly limited to big cities vs. rural counties. Rural places feel they have to outflank their rural neighbors, too.

But what is the purpose of such competition, especially when the returns aren’t ever that impressive? Wouldn’t it be better, as Collins says, for rural towns and counties to build their own future instead, independent of each other’s fates? Is that even realistic in such an interdependent economy?

(A greenhouse in the Twin Oaks Community. Photo courtesy of Twin Oaks.)

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