Generally, America’s rural counties are less prosperous than urban counties. However, much as urban prosperity can have many compositions, so too can rural prosperity — both in the overall level of prosperity and in its nature. We explore three distinct types of rural prosperity that have emerged from analysis of the 829 counties of the eight states profiled in the Index. The most prosperous of these archetypes is found across the prairies of Montana and Colorado. In Texas there is a slightly less prosperous group of rural counties, comprising 196 of the 254 counties in the state, and in southern Georgia we find the least prosperous of the rural archetypes. Compared with urban archetypes, rural archetypes are much more localized in their composition, evident in the archetypes of rural Texas and southern Georgia.
Each of these rural archetypes is typically less ethnically diverse than the urban archetypes studied and have a higher share of seniors in their populations, with fewer working-age residents. The public sector is a comparatively bigger employer and a lower share of the population works in the retail and knowledge sectors.
Unsurprisingly, the strengths of these counties are their more abundant natural resources and social capital. Residents have access to plenty of clean air, water, and power. Family relationships and civic participation are also strong. However, the business environment tends to be weaker, and transport links and communications infrastructure tends to be of lower quality. Furthermore, the mental health of rural communities tends to be lower than in urban counties, the effects of which are compounded by less-accessible healthcare.
This prosperous rural archetype comprises counties that are concentrated across Montana’s plains and in parts of Colorado. The population density is very low at an average of just four people per square mile, compared to a population density of 150 people per square mile across the southern plains. These counties have a near mirror-image profile to that of the ‘large southern cities’ urban archetype; they have strong institutions and high levels of social wellbeing, but weak economic structures. The major strength of these counties is social capital: the strength of bonds within communities across the northern prairie is strong, and rates of civic and social participation are the highest of all urban and rural archetypes.
Residents in northern prairie counties have good physical health, with low rates of infectious disease and chronic disorders, such as diabetes. The mental health of the community, however, is problematic and access to healthcare facilities can be difficult for those in more isolated areas. Particularly in the Montana prairie, it is “common for people to drive hundreds of miles to […] go to a doctor’s appointment.” There are a number of health programs that specifically target such areas to help address these challenges. For example, the Community Health Association of Mountain/Plains States (CHAMPS) works across Montana, Colorado, and other states in the region to support and advocate for community-based providers of primary care in underserved communities. More local efforts, such as Montana State University’s Rural Health Initiative (RHI), which aims to link prevention and community-based wellness programs across Montana, provides a platform for sharing ideas and expertise, as well as offering incubator mini-grants to assist community projects. Gunnison County in Colorado is a successful example of a very local health initiative. The county, which ranks in the top 5% of counties for its overall health, runs a number of health programs such as the Gunnison County Substance Abuse Prevention Project (GCSAPP). This program allows all students in grades 6 through 12 to apply for a “Choice Pass”, which gives discounted access to healthy recreational activities and skill-based programs in collaboration with nearly 40 community business partners to promote healthy lifestyle choices.
Another pressing challenge faced in northern prairie counties is economic stimulation. While agriculture, cattle ranching and forestry remain important, residents have looked once again to the states’ natural environment, the abundance of mountains, forests, lakes and rivers, to boost the economy by creating a thriving tourism sector. Concerted efforts are being made to leave no one behind, with initiatives in both Colorado and Montana recognizing the economic challenges faced by rural communities. For example, efforts in Rock County (MN) to expand broadband infrastructure and connectivity, as well as directed investment, have resulted in access to high speed internet for over 99.9% of the population. The Rock County economic development office capitalized on this to attract businesses, as well as establishing an “e-visit” scheme with a nearby hospital to improve healthcare accessibility for its residents.
The Accelerate Montana, Rural Innovation Initiative (AMRII) and the Rural Technical Assistance Project (RTAP, formerly Blueprint 2.0) in Colorado both have strong community focuses in their economic stimulation strategies. This focus has already affected some degree of success. Accelerate Montana has established connections in Helmville, White Sulphur Springs, and Harlowton (among others), each of which stands to benefit from the recent five-year $730,000 consultation grant awarded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.
Counties of the southern plains, which lie across rural Texas, typically have poor social outcomes and similar economic characteristics to the urban ‘large southern cities’ archetype, though there are slight variations depending on location. Rural counties in the South and West of the state typically have better performance across the Open Economies domain, but higher rates of crime and lower levels of social capital than the rural counties that surround the large cities in the East of the state.
Historically, the economy of the southern plains was focused on cattle, cotton and timber. Today, these industries are still important (Texas has more farms than any other state), but oil has become the principal industry since the Texas oil boom in the early 20th century; gasoline, fuel oils, and petroleum are now the largest contributors to the state’s GDP and account for over a third of the state’s exports. Despite the high productivity of this industry, unemployment rates across the southern plains remain high, and labor force participation rates have declined since 2010.
A study conducted for the Texas Rural Funders Collaborative found that building on the unique assets of these rural communities to diversify their economies should be a main priority. However, a considerable obstacle is poor quality infrastructure, particularly in the way of telecommunications. Perhaps surprisingly, this is more of a problem in those counties in the east of Texas, closer to the metropolitan centers. A comparatively small proportion of the population of these counties — just 76% — have connections to fixed broadband internet. Low download speeds are pervasive and problematic for businesses and individuals alike. The Texas division of Connected Nation, a national non-profit that aims to improve broadband access for all Americans, received additional funding in 2019 from the Texas Rural Funders Collaborative and has begun to address some of these issues, supporting disconnected and underserved rural communities across Texas.
The Texas Rural Health and Economic Development Advisory Council has outlined the major challenges for improving healthcare in these counties. They identified that improved communications infrastructure would increase the opportunity for telemedicine and telehealth, while better quality roads would help reduce transportation times for emergency medical services.
Across these counties, there is generally a low level of social tolerance and rates of civic participation are low. The Creative Learning Initiative based in Austin has seen success in bringing together many different community organizations to promote student engagement and improve student achievement. Not only has this approach improved education outcomes — which has in turn been shown to increase social tolerance — but it also has the potential to increase community engagement. This is important, because not only are the education outcomes of rural Texan schoolchildren poor, but there is also a disconnect between rural education and rural workforce requirements.
The rural counties across the south-eastern coastal plains are the least prosperous of all urban and rural archetypes. However, they do have a number of strengths, including a preponderance of high-quality freshwater reserves and low levels of toxic land releases. Furthermore, social capital is strong, with high levels of institutional trust and close community connections.
In contrast, many aspects of social wellbeing, such as health, living conditions, and education outcomes, are weak, indicating that the base of human capital on which a strong economy can be built is not yet sufficient for substantial business expansion.
Georgia’s pre-K schooling initiative ‘Bright from the start’, headed by the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, is a holistic approach to preparing children for future school achievements and has seen much success. However, as these children progress to K-12, the quality of education is substantially lower than average and is particularly weak in these rural areas to the south of the state. To address these challenges, the Georgia Department of Education has launched the Partnership for Rural Growth, which aims to expand the resources available to school districts in these underserved communities. Not only is the goal of this initiative to provide students with a well-rounded education, but also to provide them with STEM qualifications and entrepreneurship tutoring.
Developing and retaining ambitious and innovative local talent will be key to addressing many of the economic challenges faced in south Georgia’s rural counties, including low rates of labor force engagement. As noted by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, this will mean harnessing the latent natural resources available in these rural counties and reinvigorating the economic dynamism that has been lost over the course of the last decade.
Healthcare provision for the residents of these counties is also a major challenge. Analysis by the Chartis Center for Rural Health shows that 27% of rural hospitals in Georgia are vulnerable to closure — among the most vulnerable in the country. This vulnerability has already been observed with seven rural hospitals closing since 2010. The strain under which the rural Georgia healthcare system operates has been further highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, Phoebe Putney Memorial hospital in Albany serves many of the residents of surrounding rural counties and has been particularly hard-hit by COVID-19, with the highest number of deaths per capita in the state found in this region. Other rural counties such as Hancock — which had a hospital closure a few years ago — have also been “swamped” by outbreaks.
A way to maintain the financial stability of rural hospitals, help avoid future closures and provide healthcare coverage to the state’s most vulnerable, the non-profit Georgia Watch suggests, would be to expand the Medicaid eligibility. Additionally, supporting the rural healthcare system is vital to stimulating economic recovery as it is estimated that for every one hospital job in Georgia, more than two jobs are created in the local community.
Rural counties share many strengths upon which they can build; crime rates are low, there is a profusion of natural resources for both extraction and ‘Big Sky Country’ tourism, and the bonds of community are strong. However, the challenges they face — typically in the way of healthcare access, physical infrastructure, and economic growth — require significant focus.
Though the challenges faced by rural counties are similar in nature, the heterogeneity of rural America is often overlooked in policymaking. This heterogeneity is why specific, community-led initiatives that address local needs can have such a powerful impact on education, healthcare and business creation: they facilitate a more targeted strategy for each individual area.
That said, there are many examples of successful development across rural America from which these communities can take inspiration. For example, the coalition of community stakeholders in Gunnison (Colorado) may provide inspiration to other northern prairie counties with weaker health outcomes, such as Big Horn County in Montana. Similarly, counties across the southern plains could address challenges in their pre-K education systems by learning from the strategies and implementation of the nationally recognized ‘Bright from the start’ initiative in Georgia.
The opportunities for learning are not limited to those counties that have been explored in this County Index. The improvement of broadband access in Rock County (Minnesota) — which shares many characteristics typical of the rural counties we have examined — is one such example. Improving broadband access is a challenge faced by many of the rural communities we have reviewed and this best-practice example can be used as a template for development in many of them.