New York Times writer Eduardo Porter says it’s time to face “hard truths” about the rural economy – it may not be fixable. Roberto Gallardo, who has worked in rural communities on digital development and inclusion, says Porter’s cold-hearted analysis leaves out lots of different approaches.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This weekend the New York Times published an op/ed by Eduardo Porter titled “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy.”  

Porter, an economics writer for the Times, says (among other things) that it might be better to stop fighting rural poverty with programs in those distressed communities. Instead, public policy could encourage people who live in distressed areas to move to places (primarily large cities) where there is more economic opportunity.  

Instead of so-called place-based policies to revitalize small towns,” Porter writes, “why not help their residents take advantage of opportunities where the opportunities are?  

Roberto Gallardo at Purdue University responded to Porter’s argument through a series of tweets. This article is adapted from those tweets. 

Eduardo Porter makes an interesting analysis in the New York Times. Yes, socioeconomic indicators do not favor rural or small city areas. And, yes, Enrico Moretti and economists are finding that digital jobs are concentrating at even higher rates than industrial jobs. Another New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, has made similar arguments, saying that rural “revival seems very unlikely.”  

But Porter’s response is understandable only from a purely urban and economic perspective. Are we not capable of looking at this issue from a different perspective? 

Let me give an alternative explanation and vision from a more human, community economic development perspective.  

Some pundits thought the digital age would bring the “death of distance,” reducing the impact that location has on economic activity. But that hasn’t occurred as predicted. The results, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims, are superstar employees, firms, and cities geographically concentrated. The internet, which was supposed to erase this distance “can’t yet replace high-quality face-to-face communication required for rapid-fire innovation.” 

How is it that the decentralized network effect, that so many companies are capitalizing on now, has still not translated to overall economic performance?    

A simple but critical reality is overlooked by these pundits: lack of digital parity between urban and rural areas. As I have argued before, the playing field is not even. Rural America is at a disadvantage when it comes to connectivity and digital skills. 

Of course, urban areas, dovetailing from their industrial density advantage, have capitalized on this. But what if digital parity was a reality? What if, as tech continues to evolve, holograms and mixed-reality make physical face-to-face communication less critical? 

What happens when customizable manufacturing and 3-D printers, rather than mass producing, become ubiquitous? Or when drones/driverless cars move things more efficiently? Or when artificial intelligence is responsible for more innovations and knowledge generation?  

Ask yourselves: will physical proximity still give an edge to economic performance? And will the American workers now consigned to large cities make different decisions about where to live based on quality of life if they had the choice?  

Humans are creative by nature. In my daily work with rural and small-town communities, it is obvious that we are equally or even more creative than our urban counterparts. We have had to be this way since the founding of the country. But we are in a highly unequal digital ecosystem.  

Ideas abound on how rural can experience a revival. First, as Mark Muro at Brookings concluded, invest in broadband connectivity and digital skills. Inadequate and expensive service is what most rural areas deal with.   

Next comes a change in mindset, which is the most complicated step. Help rural communities divest their 50-year-old industrial community-economic-development model and focus more and more on economic gardening and place-making.  

Recreate urban digital ecosystems with program’s like the Center on Rural Innovation’s initiative. Replicate Utah’s extension service Remote Work Revolution or Connected Nation’s digital works programs. Use the Intelligent Community Forum concept as a roadmap. 

Incentivize cooperative extension, nonprofits, churches, and libraries to improve digital skills. Renovate downtown buildings (plenty available!) to house makerspaces and co-working areas. Repurpose workforce development mechanisms to focus on life-long or constant learning. 

With global warming and ever more traffic and air-quality issues, rural has a tremendous advantage. As information-technology applications become more sophisticated, something urban pundits overlook, and a real digital parity exists, the death of distance will materialize. 

Is rural America worth a try? Heck yeah! Rural residents can rebound. Help and empower rural residents to look inward and invest in their very creative residents and businesses. Do so within a human-centric and digital-parity setting. Only then, will a revival take place.  

Roberto Gallardo is assistant director of the Purdue University Center for Regional Development and a Purdue extension community and regional economics specialist. @robertoge  He has written extensively on rural development and digital inclusion. He is a senior fellow of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder. 

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