Sunday, September 25, 2022

Lawmakers tackle ‘flyover country’ stereotypes, look for ways to boost rural communities

House lawmakers are tackling stereotypes of rural America in a bid to help communities struggling with dwindling job opportunities and declining populations. 

Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, the top Republican on a select committee studying economic issues, said it’s important to change the narrative around how rural Americans are perceived. 

“The mainstream media continues to push a narrative that ‘rural’ is poor, uneducated, Whites and that’s just completely disconnected with the reality of what rural is,” Mr. Steil said. 

The panel was hosting leaders in rural innovation for a roundtable discussion focused on changing the way people think about farm communities and how to stimulate shrinking economies.

The roundtable, led by Democratic Rep. Angie Craig of Minnesota, comes as Congress is assembling the farm bill, including measures intended to revitalize rural communities.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that six out of 10 rural counties lost jobs between 2000 to 2019 due to factors such as automation and globalization.

In 2020, at least 24% of rural residents were people of color with the median rural county seeing a population increase in minority residents by 3.5% between 2010 and 2020, according to the left-leaning Brookings Institution.

Ms. Craig, who is one of a handful of Democrats in her caucus who represent a largely rural district, said there’s an importance in understanding that not every rural community is the same, despite misconceptions that lump rural America into one identity.

“I represent a district that is rural, exurban with urban, which is unusual in America today,” Ms. Craig said. “Having grown up in the rural South myself and now living and representing parts of rural Minnesota, there are some differences across rural America.”

Lawmakers and rural policy experts said one solution to mitigate an exodus of the younger workers from small towns and farming communities was more federal spending on education and career training.

Andrew Seibel, former state secretary of Virginia Future Farmers of America, said technical education in rural communities would grow the local workforce.

“There’s a lot of value in career technical education in rural communities,” Mr. Seibel said. “I come from a rural community and I was told to my face by a counselor that if I want to go to college, I cannot take CTE courses.”

Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Texas Republican, said it is the rest of America that needs to get educated.

He said people living on the coasts and in big cities need to understand how ‘flyover country’ drives the economy for the rest of the nation.

“If you like to eat, if you like the clothes on your back, and if you like the fact that when you turn the switch in your home, the lights come on, then you need to hug a farmer and you need to thank an energy producer,” Mr. Arrington said. “Supporting critical infrastructure and sustainability in small town America is an issue of national security. Period.”

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