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Prior to COVID-19, it appeared that the United States had enjoyed a robust recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Gross domestic product, consumer confidence, and spending were all rising; stagnation seemed to be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, the real story was much more nuanced.
In fact, almost all of the nearly 20 million jobs added between the Great Recession and coronavirus were in metropolitan areas. If cities were removed from the equation, many economic indicators would have remained below pre-recession levels throughout rural America.
So why does this geographic inequality exist?
According to economists, this is due to something called “agglomeration”, which Merriam-Webster’s defines as the trend toward, “a localized economy in which a large number of companies, services, and industries exist in close proximity to one another and benefit from … this proximity.” In other words, agglomeration is the flow of firms into cities and out of rural areas.
Every year, because of this agglomeration, more and more young people leave their rural home towns for a handful of megapolitan areas and countless smaller metros all across the country. Consequently, rural tax bases contract in a way that further threatens the survival of these areas.
The outcome of this cycle is a dynamic in which the rural 90 percent of America’s land mass is forced to face Herculean challenges without the help of young local leaders — or funds to support them. In short, agglomeration is the reason that 60 million rural Americans have been left behind by economic growth.
Nonetheless, educational institutions largely ignore the issue; their cosmopolitan career cultures serve to draw rural students farther from any rural roots that they may have as they are shuffled into careers in America’s largest metropolitan areas.
Top schools rarely offer training that could lead to other pathways. Despite the unique challenges facing rural areas, rural studies departments are hard to come by; as are classes. Even at Harvard, a simple search of the course catalogue reveals dozens of courses related to urban issues and about ten touching upon rural ones; several of those don’t even mention domestic issues in the rural United States.
As long as Americans continue to disregard the study of rural areas, small towns everywhere will continue their backslide into addiction, poverty, and population decline. Present circumstances are especially dire as these towns face COVID-19 after rampant hospital closings have rendered many communities medically impotent.
These economic challenges and restricted opportunities in rural America are not just a “white people problem;” the many Black people, trans people, gay people, Latinx people, Native people, women, and members of other marginalized groups who call rural America their home face pronounced challenges that are unique from the struggles of these groups in urban America due to the underserved nature of rural areas.
The solution is two-fold: orchestrating a concerted effort to encourage rural college students to return home after graduation while simultaneously undertaking serious efforts to change the economic incentives that caused rural “Brain Drain” in the first place.
It is my sincere hope that my recently launched Rural Leadership Initiative (RLI) and its inaugural cohort will be a catalyst in achieving that goal. Of course, RLI is merely a stipend program; real change will require that we all demand better from institutions like Harvard.
As we pursue that goal, we must demand more from faculty, their peers, and the career culture that underlies so many of the issues discussed herein. In doing so, I hope that we can all be Hometown Heroes who fight for America’s rural communities.
After all, if a place like Harvard isn’t preparing us to improve our hometowns, then why be here?
Jack Alex White III ’23 is a Government concentrator in Leverett House. He is the founder of the Rural Leadership Initiative (RLI).
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