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Rural Policy

Last Updated: 2006

Over the course of American history, rural communities transformed from the home of the vast majority of Americans to the home of an ever-smaller and more heterogeneous minority. As noted by historian Richard Hofstadter, “the United States was born in the country and has moved to the city.” As the political landscape was altered in the transformation from a predominantly rural country to a predominantly urban one, there was a parallel development of the modern state and intergovernmental system.

Rural policy is understood as those policies specifically targeted at small, nonmetropolitan areas. The primary issue that endures for rural areas is that of resource scarcity. What in earlier times meant a lack of revenue to build bridges, secure public lands, or build roads, or later to provide electrification or utilities, today means an inability to provide telecommunications infrastructure, arts and cultural programs, parks, and competitive education systems. A limited tax base results directly in a lack of funding for programs in these areas on a scale comparable to that of urban areas. Additionally, it results in a lack of government expertise and organizational capacity to attract outside resources through grants within an intergovernmental system that rural areas are increasingly dependent upon due to their intrinsic resource scarcity.

Rural population changes are characterized by decline and redistribution. During the 1970’s (rural rebound) and early 1990’s, widespread rural areas grew through increased migration. Migration flows favored urban areas in the 1980’s but some rural areas, particularly those with significant scenic amenities, continued to grow, creating a patchwork of growth and decline throughout the rural United States. Proximity to urban areas is also a factor as many people turn to long-distance commuting to maximize rural, low-density lifestyles while maintaining employment in the city. Regional differences in rural population change are noteworthy. Between 1990 and 1996, areas gaining population included the Mountain West, Upper Great Lakes, and Ozarks, and parts of the South and Northeast. The Great Plains, Western Corn Belt, and Mississippi Delta lost population. Rural areas experiencing decline often face decades of out-migration of young adults moving to larger urban centers in search of employment. Such outmigration leaves behind a much older and more vulnerable population. But older adults also comprise growth potential. As the baby boomers age, retirees are becoming an important economic development resource for rural communities. Rural communities often lack a critical population mass to attract large-scale business ventures, hospitals, and service providers. Partnerships and cooperative agreements among communities are needed to stem the outflow of young rural workers and service the needs of aging community members.

In 1776, 90 percent of the U.S. population lived in rural areas; but by 2000, this percentage declined to only 20 percent of the total U.S. population, with the majority of urban growth occurring at the turn of the last century. The American political system continues to believe in the ideal of the rural community, even as the economic realities of the infeasibility of the family farm mean a precipitous decline in rural people actually engaged in farming. By 1990, only 46 of 435 congressional districts were classified as farm oriented and only one in ten rural people were engaged in farming. The reality of the pastoral, agrarian community is one that no longer resembles the ideal that has sustained political power for rural farm interests. Rural communities have historically been farming communities and for most of U.S. history, “rural policy” and “farm policy” have been synonymous. As farming declined, attachment to the land and the values romanticized by agrarians evaporated. The transformation of rural livelihoods resulted in an urbanization of rural culture and associated urbanization of their economies, demographics, or governments. The result for federalism is a rural population increasingly desiring urban services, policies, infrastructure, and opportunities without the capacity to realize them.

The idealized notion of the rural United States as a bucolic landscape free of urban ills belies a diverse and rapidly changing economic landscape that is increasingly embedded in the national and international marketplace. The marginalization of primary products, and the increasing ability of companies to find cheaper labor sources offshore, eroded the competitive advantage of rural areas in the late twentieth century. Strategies for development often include the promotion of amenity values, the recruitment and retention of manufacturing entities, and agricultural development and diversification.

Trends in rural policy include a continuing pattern of uneven growth across rural communities, the continuing importance of agriculture to the rural economy, the need to improve worker skills and education, and the importance of connecting the rural United States specifically to the digital economy, and more broadly connecting areas economically with the broader national and global economies. Such links help overcome the disadvantages of low population densities and remote locations. Possible linkages can be captured with improvements in telecommunications technologies and infrastructure. Three critical resources lag behind in the rural United States, including human capital, infrastructure, and leadership. New policies need to move beyond an agriculture-centered rural policy structure to address these deficiencies.

The changes in rural life that marginalize a community’s economic competitiveness also diminish the political clout of rural areas. And without political strength necessary to place rural development and the interests of rural people on the national political agenda, the necessary government policies and programs will prove ever more elusive. The systemic changes in federalism from the Progressive era government reforms to the cooperative and creative federalism periods resulted in structural changes such as the Seventeenth Amendment and procedural changes in representation and electoral systems such as the reapportionment revolution of the 1960’s (Supreme Court cases such as Baker v. Carr 1962 and Reynolds v. Sims 1964). The cumulative effect of the new population-based paradigm that increasingly looks at individuals in the system of federalism rather than states results in a shift in power toward urban areas. The politics of population prevail over the politics of place, and the current period of devolution that characterizes the American intergovernmental landscape today continues to search for means that reestablish place-based federalism and return the American intergovernmental system to the era of dual federalism.

Government policy at all levels once worked, as David Danbom (1995) noted, “to encourage farmers as a social group and agriculture as an economic enterprise”; today, the number of family farms has dwindled, and agriculture and extractive industries have underperformed compared to the rest of the economy; as a result of these conditions, the historical association of rural development with these economic sectors has misguided a great deal of development policies. Simply identifying the problems of the rural United States as those of agriculture and extractive industries has not only provided misguided policies for past development, but also failed to recognize broader international economic and structural changes that have unevenly had an impact on rural communities in developed countries.

The rural United States has often been shortchanged in the federal aid process, and the fiscal crisis of the last decade only exacerbated its problems. Rural development policy requires resources and expertise, qualities most often absent in sparsely populated and economically depressed communities. Federal and state resources are essential to local governments in rural communities in overcoming obstacles to development. The federal government often is the most obvious source of funds available to rural communities for development. However, the very factors that are involved in the economic problems of the rural United States often make them less than effective in exercising political influence in Washington. Also, the national solutions of policy makers in Washington are less effective for the spatial dispersion and heterogeneity of rural communities. Given the heterogeneity of rural communities, a single path to development might be impossible. These factors combine to make rural development a policy area that requires an intergovernmental policy response; the problems are such that no level of government can singularly provide an effective response.

SEE ALSO: Baker v. CarrCreative FederalismDevolutionReapportionmentRepresentationReynolds v. SimsRural PolicyTelecommunications


D. L. Brown, G. V. Fuguitt, T. B. Heaton, and S. Waseem, “Continuities in Size of Place Preferences in the United States, 1972–1992,” Rural Sociology 62, no. 4 (1997): 408–28; David B. Danbom, Born in the Country: A History of Rural America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); W. H. Frey and K. M. Johnson, “Concentrated Immigration, Restructuring and the ‘Selective’ Deconcentration of the United States Population,” in Migration into Rural Areas, ed. Paul Boyle and Keith Halfacree (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998); W. A. Galston and K. J. Baehler, Rural Development in the United States: Connecting Theory, Practice, and Possibilities (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1995); A. Eugene Havens and Howard Newby, “Agriculture and the State: An Analytic Approach,” in Studies in the Transformation of U.S. Agriculture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986); Mark W. Huddleston and Marian Lief Palley, “Shortchanging Nonmetropolitan America: Small Communities and Federal Aid,” Public Budgeting and Finance 36 (Autumn 1981): 36–45; and Jim Seroka, Rural Public Administration: Problems and Prospects (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986).