The old definition of success for rural counties was growth. But growth frequently means more problems, high land prices, loss of shared values, etc. So if you are growing, you aren’t happy. If you aren’t growing, you’re stagnating, so you’re not happy either. So no one is happy.
But the new definition of success may be prosperity. Andrew Isserman has been researching, and he has some different ideas that you might be able to use. By using the lens of prosperity, you know what to measure and how to make progress. You can’t change whether you have an interstate highway, but here are the things you can get to work on.
Stop High School Dropouts
Education completion rates are a key indicator of prosperity. And make sure that your boys don’t lag behind girls in completing their education. I was interested to hear that the number of high school graduates per 1000 people at age 25+ is more important to your county’s prosperity than the percent of your jobs that qualify as “creative class” occupations. That’s encouraging, because you can actually influence how many people graduate from high school!
Focus on the Right Jobs
Private, nonfarm employment turns out to be the key employment metric. Prosperity does not rely on natural resources “value added” jobs. In fact, distressed counties had more of those resource-based jobs. Prosperous counties have more “footloose” manufacturers, who could be anywhere but chose to be where they are. It was not hospitality/lodging (tourism), was not health care, was not government. So prosperous areas have made a transition from the resources-based economy to something more.
Isserman was a keynote speaker at the Michigan Small Town and Rural Development Conference.
The results of this research were published in a report to USDA Rural Development, titled: “Why Some Rural Communities Prosper While Others Do Not.” (PDF)
As the introduction explains, “Prosperity is a useful, new lens through which to consider the rural condition and rural policy.”
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