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Rural Matters

May 17, 2021

In Part II of this three-part series on Reimagining Rural Policy, produced in collaboration with and underwritten by the Brookings Institution, Michelle talks with Gbenga Ajilore Senior Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary, USDA-RD; Kennedy O’Dell, a Senior Research and Policy Associate at the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a bipartisan think tank focused on forging a more dynamic U.S. economy; and Erik Stegman (Carry the Kettle First Nation Nakoda),  Executive Director of Native Americans in Philanthropy, a national organization advocating for stronger and more meaningful investments by the philanthropic sector in tribal communities. The guests take a deep dive into the importance of developing rural policy that reflects the diversity of rural America and serving a broader racial equity agenda. Rural myths, such as being predominantly agricultural (today more than 70 percent of the rural economy is service-based) are detrimental to developing successful rural policy, according to Ajilore. It’s important, he notes, to increase infrastructure, including broadband, to enable rural sectors not just to survive but to thrive. Native Americans did not “come to rural,” but rural came to them, Stegman points out, adding that more than 70 percent of Native Americans live off the reservation, as a result of intention federal incentive programs to relocate them, and today the typical experience of native Americans is going between rural and urban areas. It’s difficult to create a system can accurately capture what’s “rural,” but there’s an appetite to find a suitable definition of rural for both policy and research. EIG created a hybrid definition of rural that found that, in 2018, about 2300 counties were classified as rural, which translates into a rural population of about 52.5 million.  In terms of indicators of distress, she says, the average poverty rate in rural areas is nearly 3 percentage points higher than non-rural areas, and rural areas lag in terms of population and employment growth. The largest age cohort in rural areas is 55-64, compared to 25-34 in non-rural areas. In addition, O’Dell points out, terms of well-being and distress indicators, more than 50 percent of black residents and 45 percent of Native Americans lived in distressed counties, compared to 18 percent of rural whites, according to EIG statistics. This is evidence of systemic inequality, and Ajilore says that post-pandemic, the American Jobs Plan and America Families Plan will hopefully address these inequities, making sure the recovery is inclusive, targeting specific resources, including assistance to community colleges and HBUCs.  Stegman notes that the more than 570 federally recognized tribal nations see new opportunity to strengthen their nation-to-nation relationship with  the federal government; while there have been historic underinvestment in federal resource, more than $31 billion was targeted toward tribal nations under the COVID recovery package. O’Dell concludes the conversation by noting that
EIG has proposed a Cabinet-level department or National Development Strategy to deal with the fragmented federal approach to rural economic development. This episode and the entire three-part series are sponsored by the Brookings Institution,