Economic Equity: Rural Prosperity in Focus
This 26-minute podcast was released Oct. 13, 2021, as a part of the Timely Topics: Economic Equity miniseries.
“We believe rural communities will achieve longer-term, more durable success if they look inside their boundaries for opportunities to invest in and focus on,” says Daniel Paul Davis, vice president and community affairs officer at the St. Louis Fed. Davis joins Andrew Dumont, senior community development analyst at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, in a discussion with Matuschka Briggs about the book the two edited, Investing in Rural Prosperity, which builds a framework for advancing shared economic prosperity in rural communities across the U.S.
Matuschka Lindo Briggs: Welcome to Economic Equity, a miniseries from the St. Louis Fed's Timely Topics podcast series. I'm your host, Matuschka Lindo Briggs, and today I'm speaking with Daniel Paul Davis, vice president and community affairs officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and Andrew Dumont, senior community development analyst at the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. Daniel and Andrew, thank you for joining me today.
Daniel Paul Davis: It's wonderful to be with you, Matuschka.
Andrew Dumont: It's great to be here.
Briggs: You are the co-editors of Investing in Rural Prosperity, a book that lays out a framework for advancing shared economic prosperity in rural communities across the United States. Why have the St. Louis Fed and the Federal Reserve Board chosen to release a book on rural prosperity? Can you maybe share how do you start down this pathway?
Davis: Yeah. So, for me, and I think this is true for many of the individuals working to advance rural America, my roots and up bringing are deeply connected to rural places. I didn't really think of my hometown as rural when I was growing up. I got my start in a town of about 400 people, literally called Flat Rock, and when I was quite young, we made a series of moves, and we landed in a coal mining town that we felt like was the big city. We had three stoplights, and certainly, if you looked around at the surrounding communities, our community was the place where the energy was and the action was happening. Looking back, my community was definitely rural, but calling it that when I was growing up wouldn't have really resonated at all for me or my family. And today, that rural community is having real conversations about its future, and it's in good company with thousands of other communities around the nation that are deliberating the same thing right now, places that may or may not think of themselves as rural but are far enough away from an urban center that they really are, places that are ranging in size with just incredible demographic diversity, all at a crossroads, trying to give considerable thought and energy to determine the direction their community is going to land and move towards some kind of economic prosperity, so that's why this book exists. It's a response to where people and communities in rural America find themselves today, gives a glimpse of why they may be experiencing some of their current challenges and also very real opportunities, and it offers a series of considerations on how to invest in the future of their community in a way that benefits everyone along with case studies for how other communities are taking action.
Dumont: So, building on what Daniel just laid out, the reality is, if you look at the headline numbers, which is where a lot of people's understanding of what's happening in rural America starts and ends, they don't, frankly, paint a very rosy picture. You know, the 2020 Census is likely to indicate that rural areas as a whole lost population between 2010 and 2020, which I think may be one of the few times when that has occurred over a 10-year period, and, frankly, many rural places haven't made up the jobs that they lost in the Great Recession when the pandemic hit. When you look at the headlines, it's a challenging time for rural communities.
Now, as Daniel noted very aptly, rural America is not one place, it's not one thing, and every place is experiencing changes in the, you know, national and global economy differently. Some places are benefitting from it. Some places are not. Some places are gaining population and people and energy, and some places are not, and I think our desire was to try to elevate the conversation, try to inform the conversation and information and understanding of really what is happening and the diversity of experience in rural America and to share stories of places that are not just accepting what is happening out there but trying to shape it and harness what's happening in the global and national economy for their benefit and for the benefit of everybody living there. And so, we have the distinct pleasure and honor of being able to hear those stories as part of what we do and wanted other folks out there that are trying to grapple with this to be able to hear those stories and benefit from those experiences as well, and that was a big goal of pulling this great information and stories and data and understanding together to really help communities know how to move forward and what they may want to think about in doing that.
Briggs: I love that you both shared that rural America can mean so many things, so I'm going to ask, can we level set when you say advancing rural America or, you know, recovery, what success might look like?
Dumont: That is community by community and person by person, right? So, what success may look like to me may be very different from what success looks like to somebody else, and so, just as an example—this isn't necessarily what I think success is ...but maybe I think success is increasing jobs, and there are more jobs in the community, and we can sort of count that and think of that as success: more people are employed. Somebody else might see success as less about counting jobs and more about just vibrancy, right? How does the town feel? Are folks connected to one another? You know, is there a real deep sense of community there? And these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, right? You don't have to trade off, growing jobs with, you know, vibrancy and a sense of community, but the relative weight that people will put on those is different, and that, I think, is one of the things that we really wanted to put forward with some of the ideas that Daniel and I proposed in our chapter in this book, which is that what success means and how a community defines that and pursues that with their resources and their energy should be reflective of everyone living there, and everyone should have a voice in deciding what success means and how that translates into how the community directs its resources, whether that's financial, whether that is the people living there and what they put their energies towards in an official capacity or otherwise. Folks should have a voice at the table and be able to help shape those decisions and resource allocation that comes out of those decisions, and so it's about being inclusive in defining what success means and deciding how to support the achievement of that vision.
Davis: Yeah, I'll just build off of that and say that, you know, think about any number of things that you're looking for when you choose a place to live or that you wish, perhaps, your kids have as they're growing up, and that's how a lot of rural communities are trying to understand and measure success. So many times, when we're out and about talking with folks, it is, are there jobs that they can make a sustainable wage to take care of a family? Or, what's the quality of schools? Do I feel safe where I am? Can I see a future in this place? Can my kids see a future that when they're of an age where they can choose someplace else to go that they can envision something for them in this community? And I think that's how a lot of communities are probably defining success.
But to Andrew's point that he outlined so well, we're trying to give communities a lens to look at success, to really understand that success, so are the activities in the community that are building towards a future in that community, is it tailored to who that community actually is, or is it built on sound principles of resilience for the future? Is it, to Andrew's point, inclusive about who's at the table for decision-making and who the community's success is going to benefit? And ultimately, is it collaborative? And that's how we're beginning to think about what success could be for a community.
Briggs: That's really helpful. So, let's dive into the book a little bit more. How have rural communities traditionally advanced economic development activities? And in what ways do you hope investing in rural prosperity will contribute to new economic development conversations that are taking place in rural areas around the nation?
Davis: I think a significant trend that Andrew and I have seen in our work, and this is really well documented by rural writers and thought leaders for a decade or more, is that communities often look beyond themselves for solutions, so they want to go find a big employer and lure them into the community, or they want to identify some attractive thing that a neighboring community has and find a way to make a carbon copy and place it right in their community, and sometimes the unintentional outcome of this kind of pursuit is that the community might fail to recognize and build off of the incredible assets that they already possess. Certainly, the aims are well-intentioned. So, who doesn't want to live in an attractive place that draws more people to live and work there and has amenities that helps them think about being there long into the future? To get there, we believe rural communities will achieve longer-term, more durable success if they look inside their boundaries for opportunities to invest in and focus on and not just on the aggregate picture but on how their development efforts reflect and really consider the needs of all segments of the community.
Briggs: Let's talk about this framework and maybe break it down. When it comes to expanding economic equity, what are the key elements necessary for a rural community to be successful?
Dumont: As I think about the elements that allow a community to be successful in creating access to economic opportunity for all in the community, really, I think about it as a process, not a thing. Right? It's not you're going to put a, you know, regional food processing center in the community and it's a silver bullet, all your problems are going to be solved, everything is going to be great, right? Because what is needed and what is going to allow a community to be successful is going to differ community to community. What might be a great investment for Community A would be a waste of money for Community B because it's not leveraging the strengths of that community. So, I'm going to apologize right now to any listener who thinks that they're going to come on here and hear “This is the thing. If you do this, your community will be vibrant and everybody will have access to economic opportunity,” because there is no one thing that you can do.
What you can do, which I think is not going to be a silver bullet but will be incredibly helpful in allowing you to increase the likelihood of success, is a process. It's about how you go about figuring out what to do, and that process that we lay out in the book includes four elements. It's sort of the approach that you take to figuring out and then implementing what your development strategy is going to be, and that is tailoring whatever you're going to do to your community. Don't worry about what some other community is doing. That may be great for them. They may have no idea what they're doing. Don't just do what somebody else is doing. What do you have that can be leveraged to create economic opportunity? Right? So, tailor it to your community.
Think about resiliency, to Daniel's point earlier. What's your plan if the big, local employer closes permanently and 20% of your community is laid off? What are you going to do? What's your plan if a wildfire burns down half your town or a tornado scatters it across the highway? These are not far-off scenarios. What are you going to do if a pandemic hits, you know? So, you've got to be thinking about shocks, you know, short-term, immediate shocks and long-term economic transitions. So, you've got to be resilient. You have to be thinking forward-looking in your planning.
Inclusive: How do you bring the voice of everyone in the community to the table, not just to hear their voice but to actually give them decision-making power as you think about what to do? Because really, we don't want to leave potential on the table. Folks that have been on the economic sidelines, I just see that as wasted potential. There's so much more that we can do if we empower everybody, and everybody is involved and benefits from what we do and we really think about who's benefitting.
And collaborative is the last one, and that really is to the point of, in this global economy these days, your neighbor isn't your competition. Your close relationship with your neighbor is your competitive advantage, and if you don't have that close relationship, it's your competitive disadvantage. So, despite what may be popular belief, economic development efforts are not a "you win I lose" situation. We either win or lose together, and we can go so much further when we work together than when we go it alone.
So, that's really what we put forward as a process and a way of thinking and planning and acting, which is tailoring your approach, making sure it's resilient, making sure it's inclusive and being collaborative about it.
Briggs: So, thanks for sharing those principles that you've put forth—again, tailoring, resilient, inclusive and collaborative. Can I ask, who should be at the table to meaningfully advance rural work, and what roles do they play?
Davis: I think you want anybody who's going to be affected by the work to be at the table for the conversation and the folks who are already giving good thought to the investments and the future of that community. So, Andrew and I like to think about this in probably three groups. So, the first group that you think about is the community members themselves and bringing them in. To Andrew's point about making sure that we are inclusive in our approach to development activities, that anybody who is already active in the community, that their groups are represented, as well as who's on the sidelines or who may be not as active in the community. How do we bring their voice to the table into conversations about the community's future? So, community members is one piece of that. The second piece really is funders, so individuals who are disbursing dollars, whether that be philanthropy or government or others, bankers, financial institutions, who are actually contributing capital that's so needed for many of the ideas that are going to move the community forward, so making sure that the funders are at the community. And I think that third piece that Andrew and I often talk about are policymakers themselves. So, who's making decisions on behalf of others, whether that be in a regional development district or that's somebody who's working at the State House or in Washington, D.C., crafting policies and ideas that are influencing kind of the macroenvironment of so many rural communities, to as much as possible bring them to the table for conversations as well. It's important for the community to keep those who are in decision-making roles honest about what the real dynamics are like in those communities so that we can get to better outcomes for the communities we care about.
Dumont: I think from my perspective it's really we know this from a long history of just research and practice out there, experience—You know, when I talk about practice, just experience in the world trying to do this work, that the communities that are most effective at being resilient, at turning the corner, right, getting knocked down and getting back up and turning the corner and creating new opportunities are the ones where folks from just across the community get together, sit down and work together consistently over time at figuring out what the next thing is. Again, as Daniel mentioned, that's the nonprofit communities, the philanthropic communities, local government, state government, private businesses, financial institutions, active community members, and not-so-active community members that still have a voice and will be affected by what happens. Maybe they're not at the table because they have barriers to coming and being at the table. I think about my own situation as a father with a young daughter. It's tough to be in a 6 p.m. meeting, you know? You've got to make dinner. You've got to be at gymnastics class. You've got things going on. It's hard to just be present, but that doesn't mean you don't have a perspective. So, how do you bring those voices to the table? That's my barrier. Other folks have other barriers that make it hard for them to show up at the table: a distrust of institutions that are inviting them to the table. You know, there are histories that we have to be aware of that affect folks' willingness to come and participate in these processes, so we've got to overcome that because they have a voice; they have a role; it's important that they be at the table.
And in many of these rural communities, folks that have traditionally been on the sidelines are in many ways the future of the community. They are the folks that are becoming a larger share of the population, and if we want the community to thrive in the future, we've got to figure out a way to help folks become—you know, step into leadership positions, see themselves as leaders and support them taking on those rules because they have a lot to contribute, and as I said, in many ways they are the future of the community.
Davis: I know that a lot of times folks who may be listening might be looking around, might be looking out their windows and saying, "Where are these assets that Andrew and Daniel are talking about?" And one thing that we know is an asset in every community is the people who already live there and the people who already call it home, and this is why it's so important to make sure that those folks who live in your community are represented at that decision-making, that building-a-future-together table.
Briggs: Daniel, I love that you said that the assets are the people who already live there.
Davis: What we're trying to encourage is look inside, dig deeper. What could you do in your community? What's right for you? Who is your community, and how do you respond to their needs in a way that leads to something that meets them where they are and advances them into the future?
Briggs: So, one final question for both of you, and there's two parts: One, what keeps you up at night when you're thinking about this work, as well as, what gives you hope when you look to the future of rural America?
Davis: I think what keeps me up at night when I think about this work and rural America is the number of people who live across this country in smaller places who feel like maybe they don't matter or they feel like they're being left behind. As somebody who's deeply engaged in thinking about how more people can be a part of our economy and the future of the nation, that's not something I'm okay with. That's not something I feel comfortable with. Right? I never want somebody to feel like they don't matter or to feel like they're being left behind.
And I think what brings me hope whenever I think about that is there is amazing work taking place in pockets and in communities across the country. We try to document some of that in this book, to share case studies of how folks are applying some of these principles to get results that are right for their communities, but just this idea that rural America is innovating in a lot of ways. Whenever you're looking kind of at the 30,000-foot level, it's hard to see innovation at the 30,000-foot level, but if you get into a community and you see how a community is starting to figure out how to respond to their challenges, how to pursue new opportunities, and you see the amazing works that are starting to happen where they are crafting a future together, that kind of innovation gives me a lot of hope.
Dumont: You know, I think what keeps me up at night thinking about this work is what I imagine a lot of folks out there in rural America—what keeps them up at night, which is that it feels so big, that it feels so unmanageable at times, like you just can't get your arms around it. The global economy is moving fast, and even just understanding where it's going sometimes with artificial intelligence and cryptocurrencies and, you know, just all these things that I'll admit, you know, I consider myself a reasonably young man, but I don't even grasp half of the things going on these days, that sometimes it can feel like just overwhelming, and, what's my place? And how do we grapple with this? And what is our place in the future? And from my standpoint, that, I imagine, is what many people out in rural America are thinking. As I think about that for myself, how do I give folks the right advice to know how to grapple with those sort of trends and see a future for themselves in the economy? So, just the overwhelming nature and the speed of the economy and the speed of the world and communication these days feels overwhelming at times.
And what gives me hope is the folks that are out there doing it and figuring out what that place is and how rural communities fit into not just the economy but society and so many of these challenges and opportunities ahead of us and, you know, taking the bull by the horns and just working with people locally to figure it out and not taking no for an answer and just figuring out what the market is and how that fits with the skills that they have and just making something happen, because somebody's got to do it. And just the stories that we had the honor of pulling together in this book represents some of that. It's just scratching the surface. I mean, there are so many other people and stories that we have the pleasure of coming across every day that, you know—It's already, you know, going to be a 42-chapter book. We didn't want it to be a 420-chapter book, so, you know, we had to cut it off somewhere, but there's great, great things going on out there all over the country and I know all over the world, so that gives me hope, that there are folks figuring it out, and I can play a small role in that by putting out a resource like this, hopefully will help further their work and folks that maybe aren't doing that right now but could, and this might be some inspiration to them.
Briggs: Daniel and Andrew, well, I'd like to thank you both for taking the time to share insights on your co-edited book, Investing in Rural Prosperity, and for laying out the framework on how communities can apply its principles to advance equitable work. I really appreciate you talking with me today.
Dumont: Great. Thanks so much for the opportunity. We really appreciate it.
Davis: Thanks, Matuschka. It was great speaking with you.
Briggs: So, for more information about Investing in Rural Prosperity, visit stlouisfed.org/community-development. For more from our Economic Equity podcast miniseries, visit the St. Louis Fed's website at stlouisfed.org . You can also stream and subscribe to all our podcasts on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app.