“You have to go to college,” my mother said, “at least a bachelor’s, preferably a master’s.”
I was 15 years old and wanted to move from my home on the outskirts of an isolated, 20,000-population town where I cared for cattle and rode horses to the urban metropolis of Minneapolis, where I intended to get an associate’s degree in music production.
Eduardo Porter in The New York Times recently wrote a compelling article titled “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy” and echoed much of what we in the rural United States already know: rural areas have been experiencing economic decline for decades, and there’s no end in sight. Porter cites an analysis of Census and Bureau of Economic Analysis data that shows a stark contrast: urban median incomes around $60k against rural areas hovering around $40k, an urban change in population of more than +5% against almost -5% in rural areas, and a median age in urban areas of 36 against the rural 43.
The demographics are, and have long been, concerning to those of us in rural areas. The economic situation is equally distressing according to data cited by Porter: from 2008-2012, an urban growth in new businesses, and a rural decline- and almost 10% more jobs. While unemployment is similar between urban and rural areas, all job growth since the 2008 recession has occurred in metro areas, which have access to a larger pool of young and educated workers. The employment growth in rural areas occurred mainly in areas with gas and oil reserves, coinciding with the rise of hydrofracturing.
But let’s talk about that large pool of young and educated workers in urban areas. Where did they come from? This report from the Brookings Institution shows a correlation between net youth migration (ages 15-24) and upward mobility:
The “common-sense” assumption here is that youth leave the county, go to college, and find better employment elsewhere- probably in an urban area. But interestingly, the Brookings paper paints a more complex picture that factors in quality of education, level of teen workforce participation, and more. These factors boil down to three recommendations based on an observation of the most upwardly mobile counties: invest in K-12 education; invest in broadband internet infrastructure; and invest in family planning.
Essentially, some rural counties are better than others at producing upwardly mobile citizens. The Chronicle of Higher Education a decade ago noted the similarities between urban and rural poverty. While higher education has a great impact on upward mobility, opportunities are still limited for graduates to return to their communities- whether in rural Arizona or inner-city New York.
And so, we see that the “successful ones” in our communities only ever become successful by leaving- first for university, and then for a salaried job in a metro area. There is a cultural expectation that you will either leave and become successful, returning maybe for holidays once a year, or that you will stay and contribute to the cycle of poverty. In our dichotomy-wired brains, this becomes the framework for how we measure our lives.
While the economic benefits of having highly-skilled workers in an impoverished area are clear (assuming there’s demand for their skills), we give little thought to the cultural benefits. One of my favorite CEOs (and rural entrepreneur), Trevor Mauch of Carrot, had this quote on his wall for a year: “actions express priorities.” What priorities are we expressing to our children when we take the following actions?
- Kick them out of the house at age 18
- Say “you have to go to college or you won’t be successful”
- Continually focus on the negative
- Push STEM majors because “otherwise you won’t get a job”
Instead of focusing on what would truly help rural communities: improved education and infrastructure, we typically focus on the short-term needs: get a job and settle down. To truly drive economic growth in rural areas, we must first solve the cultural problem; how are we preparing our children to succeed as learners and entrepreneurs? Outsourcing them to schools in the old factory-and-assembly-line method is not enough; we must find a way to foster a lifelong love of learning for the sake of learning. The outcome of education is not to “get a job” but to understand and study the nature of existence in its many forms and interactions. This cultural shift can not be outsourced in the way we have outsourced education to schools over the past century. It must start at home, with an appreciation for the values of family, community, and personal growth.
Effecting cultural change from within the family unit is a tall order. To effectively do so, we must bring those highly skilled workers back to their hometowns, and/or encourage graduates to come back. How do we do that? By fostering rural entrepreneurship; Porter notes the loss of effectiveness associated with starting a tech company outside of a hub, but how can we offset that weakness? We have many tools at our disposal- grants, workshops, the SBA- but we’re missing the infrastructure: access to high-speed internet and high-quality K-12 education (bolstered by a strong learning mindset at home and in the community).
My argument, then, is not that “Porter is wrong.” In fact, he’s completely right. But there’s an entirely different conversation that needs to happen- a conversation about what learning and education means in our society- before we can begin to tackle the economic issues.
At my alma mater, Oregon State University, I walked into the doors of Kidder Hall almost daily. Above those doors was engraved:
They know enough who know to learn.”