Lack of Understanding of Rural America Leads to Dire Predictions

By CREA Executive Director Kent Singer

“Can rural America be saved?”

This was the provocative opening question posed in an article from the December 16, 2018, edition of The New York Times Sunday Review. Titled “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy,” the article painted a bleak picture of rural America: poor job prospects, urban flight, an aging population, stagnant economic growth.

I was interested in this article, of course, because our members, Colorado’s electric cooperatives, provide electricity to vast swaths of rural Colorado. While some of our member co-ops serve areas with robust economic and population growth, many of them are experiencing the challenging circumstances outlined in The New York Times article.

The article is also timely given that newly-inaugurated Gov. Jared Polis (D) along with leaders of both the Colorado House of Representatives and the Colorado Senate focused on rural Colorado in their comments opening the 2019 General Assembly. All of us associated with the electric co-op program are hopeful that our new leaders will recognize the challenges of working and living in co-op territory and support policies that help us do our job of providing affordable, reliable power.

In addition to explaining some of the problems facing rural America, The New York Times piece examined some of the solutions proposed by various academics and policy-makers. Among the possible efforts to provide relief are tax credits for employers that hire workers in distressed communities, incentives for capital deployment and wider access to broadband and internet capacity.

While one or more of these strategies may have merit, the author of the article offered up another approach that only serves to highlight the disconnect between The New York Times and the people who actually live in rural America. The author suggests that one solution for what ails rural America would be to encourage cities, such as New York and San Francisco, to adopt zoning rules that would allow more affordable housing so folks from rural areas could move to the big cities. Yes, you read that right. The author is apparently under the impression that folks don’t actually want to live in rural America, and that they would jump at the chance to move to the city.

News flash: Tens of millions of people across the country, including in Colorado, love working, living and raising their families in rural America. They love the clean air, they love knowing their neighbors, they love growing up on the same farm where their parents and grandparents grew up, and they love being part of a community where people leave their doors unlocked and actually say hello when they see each other at the grocery store.

To make matters worse, the author of the article quotes a professor from the University of California Berkeley, who argues that tech companies “will be vastly less productive” if they locate in rural America rather than in urban tech clusters. The Berkeley professor says that tech companies are more productive when they “agglomerate” and that locating in “small-town America would reduce overall innovation.”

I beg to differ. There are many, many small towns and rural communities in Colorado and across the country that would embrace new companies, tech or otherwise, and provide an exceptional quality of life for their employees. With ever-increasing access to broadband capacity, most communities can support the highest of high-tech companies. So, if you’re an executive with an innovative company looking for a place to land and you want your employees to enjoy a safe, healthy and productive environment, please come to rural Colorado.

We’ll keep the lights on for you.