Rural America certainly has its charms. Clean air, wide open vistas, a close knit community, less stress, greater independence and a lower cost of living just to name a few. Many are the dreams of city folk who think about a more idyllic life in the country.
But not all is a Garden of Eden. Rural America is also beset by many woes. Healthcare professionals are few, human services are more spread out and the demographics are skewed towards older and retired residents, leaving a more sparse workforce.
It may also surprise you to learn that rural poverty is actually greater than urban poverty. In fact, a friend who moved from the big city to rural America once told me that the same problems that beset inner cities beset rural America as well. In retrospect, this makes sense. Job opportunities are fewer and there is flight to areas of greater economic opportunity. Populations are declining and as a result, so too are school systems and tax bases. Brain drain, little entrepreneurship, eroding industries – these are all real issues rural America faces.
Of course, rural America has its champions too. At JumpStart, we recently began a project working with three different rural communities in the Ozarks of Southwest Missouri, each facing some of the issues mentioned above. There, the Community Foundation of the Ozarks (CFO), a respected voice in the community with over 40 years of history, has taken the progressive step to combat the issues that threaten rural America at its root cause—economic sustainability.
Provide a family a job with a livable wage and suddenly poverty declines. Schools have a greater tax base, and healthcare becomes more abundant. In each of these communities, Marshfield (population ~6,800), Salem (population ~5,000) and Sarcoxie (population ~1,300), we discovered true champions that any big city would admire—a group of individuals dedicated to their communities who bring with them boundless energy and a stodgy determination to lift their communities out of the economic doldrums and onto a path of greater community prosperity.
Want your kicks on Route 66? Pass through Marshfield, home of Edwin Hubble of Hubble Telescope fame. Want to float down the spring-fed Current and Jacks Fork Rivers in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, two of the finest floating rivers anywhere in the county? Then visit Salem. How about the small but mighty Sarcoxie, which won three straight state archery championship through 2015 and placed 2nd this year. These communities are already focused on what’s right with rural America.
In the Ozarks, we’ll partner with the CFO to assess each community’s current economic state and help align community leaders around a set of strategic, results-driven recommendations to spur economic growth. Most importantly, the alignment process explicitly mandates that each community’s private, public, religious and philanthropic leaders agree on the current challenges they face and the tangible next steps the community needs to take to drive future growth and innovation. Because while it’s sometimes easier said than done, it will take agreement from all community stakeholders for this plan to truly succeed.
In some ways the issues that Marshfield, Salem and Sarcoxie face are unique. In one community, the housing problem is seemingly paramount. In another, the greatest challenge, and perhaps opportunity, is its proximity to a larger city. In yet another the problem is the downturn of a once thriving industry. These issues will undoubtedly dictate unique strategies and solutions to help spur growth.
But like many parts of rural America, the underlying issues these communities face are the same—population flight of the younger generation’s best and brightest, brain drain, fewer economic opportunities for a livable wage and a shrinking tax base.
But with the dedication of even just a few true community champions, we believe rural communities like these can begin to remedy their issues and realize a greater economic prosperity in the future.