Rural communities hold a special place in my heart. Not only because so many of the New Mexicans I represent live in rural areas, but also because I was raised in rural America. I know firsthand what it’s like to grow up in a small town, seeing both of my parents work long hours just to make ends meet and to provide a better future for my sisters and me.
A decade after the Great Recession, the overall economic picture for rural communities remains challenging. Not only are residents growing older, but two-thirds of rural counties lost population between 2010 and 2016. New job opportunities have lagged behind those in urban areas, and rural employment remains below pre-recession levels. Even when you have a job in rural America, too often your wages aren’t growing as fast as those in other places.
That’s why Joint Economic Committee Democrats have issued a new report, “Investing in Rural America,” that takes a deep dive into the current state of the rural economy and offers a broad range of innovative policy approaches to help rural America thrive in the 21st-century economic landscape.
At a basic level, our rural communities — just like cities and suburbs — need job opportunities that retain residents and attract new ones, quality schools, up-to-date infrastructure, accessible and affordable health care, broadband internet, financial institutions that are close by, and affordable housing.
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How we achieve these goals will require new approaches. We need to level the playing field to help smaller communities compete with larger cities. That means doing more to attract businesses, and encouraging venture funds to invest in startups in rural communities across the country.
We need to create pathways that prepare rural Americans for the workforce by promoting middle-skill opportunities in sectors projected to grow, such as health care, technology and clean energy. As just one example, wind turbine service technicians are projected to be one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States over the next 10 years, and many of these jobs will be located in rural America. We must also take advantage of new technologies to make higher education more accessible and affordable for rural residents, many of whom don’t have a university or community college within 50 to 100 miles of their homes.
Rural economic development also depends on 21st-century infrastructure investments. Democrats are ready to support a plan to build and maintain the roads, bridges and water systems that rural residents and businesses need. Waiting for Wall Street to step in won’t get the job done. It’s also long past time to connect all of rural America to broadband networks — so that each person, no matter where they live, has access to high-speed internet and the economic and educational opportunities it affords.
We can also spur new economic activity by improving access to outdoor recreation opportunities that are a pillar of the culture in so many rural communities. Our public lands support the more than $350 billion outdoor recreation economy and more than 4 million jobs — many in rural areas.
Health care delivery also continues to be a major job provider in rural communities. To improve health outcomes, we must invest in telehealth clinics and preserve the gains of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion. The ACA and Medicaid are helping keep rural hospitals and other providers afloat and improving access to medical care throughout rural America.
These are just a few ideas. But delivering on them would generate significant progress and new job opportunities in communities across the country. While no one has all the answers, our report lays out a roadmap. It details the challenges and some of the policy solutions, and we believe it can foster a wider conversation on revitalizing rural America.
I am optimistic about rural America’s prospects if we can make the right policy decisions to tap into the enormous assets these communities offer, starting with the people who live there. From New Mexico to New Hampshire, rural Americans are critical contributors to our nation’s economy, starting new businesses, growing our nation’s food, and producing our energy.
We owe it to all Americans to enact smart, forward-looking policies that will help rural communities reap the benefits of a growing economy. It would be a mistake not to fully utilize the talent and potential of the 46 million people who call rural America home.
Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico is the senior Democrat on the Joint Economic Committee.