Viewpoint: Don’t count out the rural communities

In August, the Center for Rural Affairs released a report entitled Population Changes on the Great Plains, which examines 2010 Census data showing that rural areas in the Great Plains and Midwest continue to lose population, while smaller cities and metropolitan areas continue to expand. The trend is not new, but it is striking in its scope and demonstrates the challenges facing many rural communities.

Colorado’s rural counties and smaller cities fared better than most, but it was the metropolitan counties in the region that experienced explosive growth – 33 percent from 1990 to 2010. The region’s large cities – Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Omaha, Kansas City, Des Moines, Sioux Falls and Colorado Springs – added nearly 3.5 million residents between 1990 and 2010.
During the same time, 179 rural counties experienced population decreases of 10 percent or more. Nearly half of the region’s counties, therefore, are suffering a slow, sure emptying.

By John Crabtree
Center for Rural Affairs

Larimer and Weld counties, with nearly 20 percent and 40 percent ten-year population growth respectively, do not fall into this category, but they exist on the very edge of it. The rural communities of the northern reaches of these counties struggle with population loss and economic challenges, as do rural counties of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas that are even further removed from metropolitan areas.

At the Center for Rural Affairs we view these trends differently than others, however. We see stern challenges facing rural communities, but we know there is something to be done about it.

Federal contributions to rural development have been plummeting for years – almost one-third of USDA Rural Development spending has been cut since 2003. And Congress is considering making even further cuts to already bare-bones rural development programs.

In 2007, we demonstrated that USDA and Congress have spent twice as much subsidizing the 20 largest farms in each of 13 leading farm states as they invested in rural development programs to create economic opportunity for millions of people in thousands of towns in the twenty rural counties with the most out-migration in each respective state.

To reverse this trend, we propose a Rural Renewal Initiative for the next farm bill, asking Congress to commit $500 million over five years to a Community Prosperity Fund to be invested in existing rural development programs.

This investment could be fully paid for by tightening the limits on farm payments received by the nation’s largest farms. Though $100 million dollars annually is a small fraction of farm bill spending, it would breathe new life into rural America and help rural entrepreneurs create jobs where new opportunities are arising — local and regional food systems, renewable energy and ecotourism, just to name a few.


Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic, and environmental issues. The center is located in Lyons, Nebraska.

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