By David Bridges, Director of Georgia’s Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation and President of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College
Will the events of the past year, including the pandemic, prove to be the spark that ignites a rural revival? Challenge and adversity lead to change. Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention. We have certainly experienced adversity and challenge over the past year, both of which have forced us to become more resourceful. At the same time, America is dealing with social unrest and seeking to better understand long-standing cultural norms. Some have suggested we are experiencing a cultural revolution.
Regardless of how you feel about the past year, it is time to explore the possibility of a rural revival. Could we be on the cusp of a rural renaissance? I believe a Great Awakening is not only possible, but I submit that it will happen. The endless concentration of the American population to a few densely inhabited metroplexes is not simply undesirable; it’s unsustainable. While the political, finance and banking, manufacturing, and service industries are well suited to the city, production of food, fiber, and shelter takes place in rural America. When it comes to feeding and clothing Americans, that’s what rural does best.
Now that I have your attention, it is time to reflect. There is certainly a great deal of back and forth about the virtues of rural life. Going rural involves choices. Whether you were born in a rural community and never left, moved away and came back, or you are a recent transplant, you made choices. If you have not gone rural, what might entice you to look past the amenities of urban and suburban living to choose rural?
No doubt, rural life presents certain challenges, many of which are easy to enumerate. In a recent blog called Trouble in God’s Country, Charlie Hayslett published his most recent musing, an article entitled, “New ‘Distressed Community’ Ratings Reinforce View That Georgia’s Haves and Have-nots Split Along the Gnat Line.” Hayslett, concisely and in a very eye-opening way, revealed something called the Distressed Communities Index (DCI), which is an eloquent amalgamation of demographic statistics that demonstrate many of the differences between Georgia communities that are doing seemingly well and those that are struggling. The article summarizes sobering statistics compiled by a Washington, D.C. think tank in a way that will make you go back for a second reading after you have sighed in disbelief and scratched your head.
Why do I read Hayslett’s articles? I certainly do not always agree with him, but his unapologetic presentation of blunt and painful “facts” about rural Georgia makes me think. In fact, they often make me mad – mad enough to say, “No, Charlie, us proud-to-be rural folks won’t give up that easy.”
What makes a person go rural? Making personal choices engages the heart, the soul, and the mind. By doing so, you make a decision that works for you rather than one based on empirical facts. One’s priorities, one’s ability to accept change, and one’s willingness to drive change can be powerful in personal decision making.
The acclaimed Pew Research Center recently published an exhaustive study, “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” The article delves deeply into facts and figures comparing how rural, suburban, and urban dwellers think about religion, education, politics, and social issues. It presents perceptions, or opinions, that roll up into demographic facts. It reveals that those who live in urban, suburban, and rural communities think differently and score their priorities differently.
One of the most important revelations in the Pew study, but one that was not surprising to me, was that adult rural dwellers are not likely to relocate to an urban or suburban community. By the same token, their urban counterparts aren’t that likely to relocate to a rural community. Rural dwellers may say, well and good, let them stay in the city. Hold on! We need to think about that.
Rural communities across Georgia are facing a population decline. Many young people move away after high school to seek higher education, join the military, or simply experience the world. It is a fact that young people often feel compelled to wander, pursuing the desire for a new experience. While away, they may become accustomed, some might say addicted, to a lifestyle that makes their return unlikely, but others, like me, never lost their passion for rural life.
The problem is that fewer young people have chosen to return to rural areas in recent decades. Therefore, the median age of rural communities continues to rise while the number of young parents with small children declines. If a rural revival is to occur, we must encourage the importation of young people. It is that simple. We need young couples who are educated, energetic, and resourceful to move to rural communities and raise their families.
The Pew study shows that across urban, suburban, and rural dwellers, the top three community attributes that young families are looking for include 1) a good place to raise children, 2) access to recreational and outdoor activities, and 3) family nearby. Rural communities offer the first two, and young families are welcome to bring their extended families so that relatives will be nearby. The more, the merrier. So, why aren’t young people flocking to rural communities?
I have said it before, and I will say it again. Young families will move to rural communities when they sense economic opportunity, see quality education, and have access to healthcare. Let’s take economics first. Unless you are independently wealthy, you must be able to provide for a family. That means a job or the opportunity to own a business. Opportunities do exist in rural communities. The Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation can help you find that opportunity.
Oftentimes, we only look at the income side of the equation. Equally important is the cost of living. In many cases, it is cheaper to live in a rural community. If you are inclined to be more self-sustaining, the cost can be far less.
For those with an adventuresome or entrepreneurial spirit, now may be the time. Technology and transportation have created many new opportunities that make place of residence less constraining. One very important COVID pandemic lesson has been that for many, the how and when of work has become much more important than the where. I spent much more of 2020 working from home on a rural southwest Georgia farm than I did from the office. We have all learned a great deal about working remotely. Let’s capitalize on that in a way that makes living in a rural community a good option for more people.
What about education? Remember, the second requirement for choosing rural is access to quality education. We all want good educational opportunities for our kids, right? Why wouldn’t we? It appears to me that education has really come under fire during the pandemic. This is especially true for public k-12 education. Many school kids have been out of the classroom for nearly a year, missing the instruction, competition, and socialization that occur in a structured classroom. They have also missed the arts, athletics, and other activities that round out the educational experience.
Many families have discovered alternatives - private schools, parochial schools, or homeschool. Some families have relocated so children can have a better school experience. Now I am not saying that rural communities necessarily offer better options for education. But, over the past year the bar for educational attainment has certainly been lowered, and it seems to me that smaller schools, like those in rural communities, have been nimble and have often navigated the turbulent waters better than large urban and suburban schools. I am just saying, if you are not getting what you want in the city, maybe the lower cost of living, the option for a smaller private or public school, the option to work from home and homeschool, and other benefits of living rural are calling you to consider the move.
Another consideration is health care. Access to primary and specialized health care is sometimes a challenge in rural communities, but where there is a will, there is a way. In Georgia, I think we may be beginning to round the corner. With the help of the Georgia Rural Hospital Stabilization Program and innovation like that seen in recent years at the Miller County Hospital and Clinch Memorial Hospital, the future looks much brighter.
On the primary care front, the private and public sectors are finding new ways to provide more and better access to health care. Mercer is meeting its goal of care for all. Mercer University’s School of Medicine has made a strong commitment to train physicians who are committed to serve Georgia’s rural communities. It is increasing access to primary care, having opened clinics in Plains, Fort Gaines, Fort Valley, and Eatonton, with the promise of more to come. Mercer is also home to Georgia’s Rural Health Innovation Center.
In recent months, private clinics are popping up around Georgia in unexpected places, like Preston. There, an ambitious rural entrepreneur pharmacist, Nikki Bryant, is seeing to it that people in one of Georgia’s least populated counties have access to health care.
And, the Global Partnership for Telehealth, which is headquartered in rural Blackshear, Georgia, is now a nationally and internationally recognized leader in telehealth services. The Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation is working with the Partnership (GPT) to expand services within Georgia’s rural K-12 education systems, and the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center is using their services in their clinic network.
Anything is possible when people pull together and make a commitment to a better life. Rural communities have much to offer, especially in these trying times. If you want space to spread out and breathe clean air, enjoy nature, become more self-reliant, and raise your family with an emphasis on quality of life, you may want to go rural! It is all about priorities and choices. When you and your friends make the choice to go rural, you can be part of the rural renaissance.
Hayslett, Charlie. 2021. New “Distressed Community” ratings reinforce view that Georgia’s haves and have-nots split along the gnat line. https://troubleingodscountry.com/
Parker, Kim, et al. 2018. What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/05/22/what-unites-and-divides-urban-suburban-and-rural-communities/
The Pew Center, 1615 L St. NW, Suite 800, Washington, DC 20036.