Rural America Has Already Begun to Rebound

Source: By Tom Vilsack, New York Times • Posted: Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Despite concerns about the fate of rural America, a number of key benchmarks show these areas have been growing economically since 2014. Many were surprised when the Census Bureau released data last Thursday showing median household income in non-metro areas of the United States had increased by 3.4 percent in 2015 and poverty rates had fallen.

Rural populations have stabilized, and unemployment and poverty have decreased.

That many people in small towns around the country still feel left behind is an indication of how deep a hole these regions were in. At the depths of the Great Recession, rural counties were shedding 200,000 jobs per year, rural unemployment stood at nearly 10 percent and poverty rates reached heights unseen in decades. Many rural communities were ill-positioned to bounce back quickly, since widespread job loss came as the economy was increasingly focused on technology.

But we’re seeing progress. Rural populations have stabilized and are beginning to grow, the Agriculture Department reported earlier this year. Then we learned that rural counties had added more than 250,000 jobs in 2014 and 2015. As a result, the rural unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent for the first time since 2007. Hunger is down in rural and urban areas alike. Today, about 8 million fewer people are struggling to provide adequate food for themselves or their families compared to the height of the recession.

Taken together, these benchmarks demonstrate a turning point in rural communities. Clearly, there is more to do to build a new economy in rural areas. But over the last eight years, federal assistance has helped more than 1.2 million familiesbuy, repair or refinance homes in rural America. The Obama administration has invested in 8,350 schools, libraries, hospitals and public spaces that improve the rural quality of life. And more than 5 million Americans who live and work in rural areas have gotten broadband internet service.

The census report about rural America’s quiet, remarkable comeback demonstrates how long-term government investment is central to rural America’s continued progress.

Tom Vilsack is the United States secretary of agriculture.