Director’s Log | March 2019

Doc: I have some good news and some bad news.

Patient: Give me the bad news first.

Doc: OK you have an incurable illness.

Patient: That’s horrible; what’s the other news?

Doc: You’ll be dead in six weeks.

Patient: That’s even worse. Wait, what’s the good news?

Doc: Well I hear it’ll be a beautiful sunset tonight.


That’s a pretty good summary of the argument Paul Krugman made in a recent article about the future prospects for rural America. Farm employment is shriveling; jobs are departing; the so-called “deaths of despair” are rising — and there’s nothing rural America can do about it.

Besides the outdated assessment of the impact of loss of farm employment – most rural areas long ago adjusted to that – it’s the kind of column someone could only write if they are orbiting the earth 93 miles up and looking down on our country from there.

Back on earth, the closer you get to rural communities, the more nuance you can see. Two recent reports, a big conference this week, and IEI’s experience working with rural-urban partnerships offer a lot more reason for hope.

The first report, called America at Work (the product of an unlikely marriage between McKinsey and Company and Wal-Mart), teases out eight different sorts of communities in the United States, including 5 different kinds of “rural” communities. One clear conclusion: it matters a lot whether rural areas are close to urban areas, which ones are rich in natural resources or have great views. Some are more manufacturing intense, some more agriculture-dependent.  And the path forward for each of those places is very different.

The second report, from Jessica Ulrich-Shad of the University of South Dakota and published in the (unfortunately named) Journal of Peasant Studies, looks at recent economic results in three different kinds of rural areas – “amenity rich” (growing in all segments) “transitioning,” (experiencing overall population growth but losing young people) and “chronically poor” (losing jobs and population).

Writing about the second study in CityLab, University of Toronto professor Richard Florida notes: “Our overly simplified mental models of America’s economic geography—especially of its rural areas—mask a more complex reality. It is critical to understand if we want to successfully bridge the economic, cultural, and political divides that continue to plague our nation.”

Tim Marema from The Daily Yonder makes a parallel point, and one much closer to the work that the Institute for Emerging Issues emphasized in our conference last month, “ReCONNECT Rural and Urban”: If we want to bridge rural-urban divides, we need to get a deep sense of the critical interdependent role that rural and urban areas play for our state’s – and our nation’s – future success. He writes: “The reality is that the rural-urban dichotomy is false. We need leaders and policies that reveal that falsity and create a new path forward for us all.”

At this week’s “Rural Day,” sponsored by the NC Rural Center, more than 600 people gathered in Raleigh for a day of problem-solving. And I got a chance to meet with and talk with folks from all these kinds of rural communities. I heard stories of the real challenges many of them are facing – including broadband connectivity, health challenges, and access to capital. What I didn’t hear was the first word of surrender. As with the five rural-urban coalitions we are working with through our ReCONNECT NC series, the communities are relentlessly optimistic, and committed to discovering solutions.

I’d like to think Paul Krugman would have been surprised – and impressed. I walked away inspired, hopeful, and newly committed.