The keynoter at last week’s Great Plains Symposium made some interesting observations about economic decline in rural America, but we suggest a slightly different tack regarding his ideas to spur the rural economy.
Paul Theobald, a dean at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, spoke at the Gains and Losses from School Consolidation symposium, organized by faculty at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The symposium was well-conceived and put a spotlight on school consolidation, a process often aimed at salvaging local schools, but which risks long-term negative consequences.
Among the purposes of the symposium was to sound a warning so policymakers and community leaders might be better informed about the dual-edged sword of consolidation.
Theobald blames a rural-urban divide for the decline of rural communities.
He said, “Why is it that we consistently see vacant businesses and abandoned homes and empty schools in the nation’s smallest towns and villages?”
A variety of responses would answer Theobald’s question, but primary among the recent causes for rural decline is the lack of economic opportunity. Good jobs were hard to come by, and even established business and farming operations struggled to hold on.
The rural climate has improved in the past two years. Today, rural leaders are complaining about a lack of skilled workers. Companies are ready to expand, but rural labor shortages are stopping them. Perhaps the shortage can be attributed to the second cause of rural decline: Living in smaller communities isn’t for everyone.
Theobald believes that rural futures might be made brighter by providing free health care to entrepreneurs, leveling the playing field for small-town merchants, making standardized testing optional in schools, and offering annual awards or grants to rural villages.
These ideas are unique, but we wonder how realistic they are, given the divide that Theobald says exists between urban and rural interests. For example, is it realistic to expect urban-leaning policymakers to support free health care coverage for small-town merchants?
A better approach is to devise rural strategies that could apply in urban settings, thus paving their way to passage in an urban-leaning Congress.