It’s time for a progress check of Rural America. Despite what it might feel like from most of the news out there, Rural America is rising. The population is growing again, improvements are being made to the electrical grid, and digital deserts are becoming less common. Below we’ll share some of the latest information out of the USDA from Successful Farming and Ag Daily. We’ll wrap it up with DTNPF’s coverage of how Rural America is becoming more connected.
Rural America’s Population Increasing
Mike McGinnis of Successful Farming reported the USDA’s results from the Economic Research Service (ERS), and it looks like Rural America is growing again. But it’s not due to natural change- which means subtracting births minus deaths. The population growth is due to net migration, or newcomers.
After six years in a row of population loss, the ERS census shows a small overall increase of 33,000 people in 2016 and 2017. Net migration increased from -0.25% in 2011-12 to 0 in 2016-17. Population growth from natural change dropped from 0.12% to 0.08%, according to the ERS data.
These results reflect a long term trend across most of the country. Population numbers due to natural change continue to have a downward trajectory. Certain age groups are experiencing higher mortality rates, aging, and fertility rates are lower. It’s anticipated that natural change numbers will continue to drop.
This is good news. More people are choosing to live in Rural America.
The ERS report predicts that Rural America will become increasingly dependent on net migration for population growth. Net migration typically occurs more scenic areas, and in areas in close proximity to larger cities, or in more densely populated rural areas. The ERS report says that migrants are less likely to move to areas that are less scenic, less settled and more remote.
An important thing to keep in mind is that even though net migration numbers in Rural America appear to to up overall, there are many pockets where this isn’t the case. The opioid epidemic has hit areas of West Virginia and Kentucky especially hard. There are also many areas of North Dakota, Montana, New Mexico, Texas, and Pennsylvania that have experienced heavier job losses related to oil and gas production.
More Americans are choosing to live in Rural America, but these population impacts aren’t going to be felt in many areas- especially those that are more remote.
Less Ethnic Diversity in Rural America
The ERS report also released diversity numbers in their report. It’s well known that Rural America is less diverse than urban areas both racially and ethnically, and that fact continues to hold. Rural America is almost 80% White. Our urban population is 58% white.
The fastest growing population segment in Rural America are Hispanics, but they make up only 9% of the population there. 8% of the rural population are Black, 2% are Native American. 1.8% of the rural population fall under the “Other” category, which includes, Asians, Pacific Islanders, and residents reporting multiple races.
Rural Electric Infrastructure
According to AgDaily, the USDA announced that it will be investing $1.6 billion into 46 different rural electric infrastructure projects. The goal is to increase electric reliability and make the grid more resilient in 24 states. Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said:
“Under the leadership of Secretary Sonny Perdue, USDA is committed to being a strong partner in building prosperity in rural communities through the sustainment and modernization of rural electric infrastructure.”
The project will build or improve over 5,833 miles of line and will spend $307 million on smart grid technology. It will directly benefit 7 million rural business and residential consumers. You can read the plan in it’s entirety here.
In April of 2017, President Trump began the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, as a way to identify legislative and regulatory changes that could promote agriculture and growth in rural communities. Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to President Trump, which included 31 recommendations. Increasing investment in rural infrastructure was one of them.
At least 7 million residential and business customers will be happy to hear their electrical service will be more updated and reliable.
Getting Rid of Digital Deserts
In addition to improvements to the electrical grid, Rural America is also becoming more “connected,” and that’s a crucial element for farmers that want to take advantage of a lot of the latest technology.
Dan Miller of DTNPF argues that one of the ways to American farmers can win new global Ag markets is by transforming our digital deserts. There’s a lot of room for improvement. The US ranks 10th in the world for internet connectivity.
A little more than 68% of rural Americans have access to high-quality fixed internet and/or mobile services. In urban areas, nearly everyone has access to it. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has found that out of the 24 million households that don’t have reliable high-speed internet access, 80% of those are rural.
Lack of Investment
Telecommunications companies just haven’t been willing to invest. One helpful measure is the FCC’s Connect America Fund, that’s supposed to help telecommunications companies. But the funds don’t have to be used for providing high-speed internet. They can be used to help provide internet speed that are much slower-10 Mbps up and 1 Mbps down- to secure most of the federal subsidies.
States haven’t done much to improve rural high-speed internet connectivity either, but that is slowly changing. For example, Minnesota has approved $34 million for 42 broadband infrastructure projects through their Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. And Wisconsin governor Scott Walker recently handed out 46 grants totaling $7.68 million that will connect 1,600 businesses and 18,000 residences in that state.
What Can Be Done?
If you don’t have high-speed internet connectivity available in your area, identify your local phone and electric companies, and ask them to invest. More than 750 communities have helped to establish their own networks.
Rural electric and telephone cooperatives are becoming players in delivering broadband services to rural areas. Two hundred telephone cooperatives manage broadband systems. Of the 900 electric cooperatives in the U.S., 60 currently offer fiber-optic internet access. Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, in Taos, New Mexico, for example, established a fiber-based internet business with the help of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant. It laid 2,900 miles of fiber-optic lines reaching 6,300 customers.
To find out more about how cooperatives and municipalities can bring high-speed internet service to rural communities, look to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance fact sheets at www.ilsr.org/rural-broadband-fact-sheet.
Rural America is rising. Maybe not as quickly or efficiently as we’d like, but there are several bright spots. The population is increasing slightly due to net migration. Investments are starting to be made to electrical infrastructure, and Rural America is becoming more “connected.”