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The Best Way to Rejuvenate Rural America? Invest in Rural America.

When it comes to their impact, there’s an inaccurate and problematic narrative about rural areas—one in which rural areas take more than they give from the government. In a recent paper and New York Times opinion piece, Brookings Institution argued that to improve rural economies, funders should invest in cities. They explain that urban and suburban centers subsidize rural areas by generating more revenue for states than they receive back in education, infrastructure and other public investments.  This sole focus on the balance sheet ignores many aspects of rural American life that have more of an impact on quality of lifeas David Peters found in his research, social capital and civic measures were more likely to predict quality of life than economic measures. In other words, people value things like knowing people in your town, being in close proximity to family, and having deep cultural roots in a place.

You might be asking yourself: what does FSG, a consulting firm with offices in four cities on the East and West coast, know about rural America, and why do we care about philanthropy’s investments in these places?

FSG is committed to changing systems that hold inequities in place, and some of these deep inequities are found in our rural areas. For example, though affordable housing is often thought of as an urban issue, the Urban Institute recently pointed out that 8 million rural Americans live in areas designated by the USDA as having a "most severe" need for more affordable housing.

On the FSG blog last year, in A Call for Philanthropy to Invest in Rural America, Wynn Rosser pointed out the underinvestment of philanthropic dollars in rural America compared to urban areas, and called on colleagues to invest more resources to bolster rural areas. He also explained there is no rural monolith, and the stereotype of ruralunsophisticated, backward, and whiteis unacceptable and inaccurate. As researchers Scala and Johnson shared in Red Rural, Blue Rural, “rural America is a deceptively simple term describing a diverse collection of places encompassing nearly 75 percent of the U.S. land area and 50 million people.”

FSG also recognizes that the term “rural” is used to describe many diverse parts of the country that exist outside of our large metropolitan areas. Just as there is no singular concept of “urban,” “rural” America is incredibly diverse. For example, in a recent report commissioned by Wal-Mart, researchers classified each of America’s more than 3,000 counties into eight archetypes, six of which include what many people might think of as “rural America.”  Another research effort, Patchwork Nation, funded by the Knight Foundation, assigned each county in the United States one of 12 community types, for example, “immigration nation” counties like Grant County, Washington and “emptying nests” like my home county in Iowa, Delaware County. They did this to attempt to reveal the diversity of populations, lifestyles, and political preferences across the country.

 In this blog series, we want to highlight success stories and explore the ways in which philanthropy can invest in rural America by examining/studying:

  • Broadband connectivity
  • Education
  • Health care
  • Economic development
  • Collaborative efforts

We look forward to connecting with others who share a passion for and commitment to rural America.

Interested in learning more? Contact me at: joelle.cook@fsg.org

Joelle Cook

Director