Skip to content
CityLab
Perspective

How Rural America Is Saving Itself

The New York Times is the latest outlet to ask “can rural America be saved?” They’re asking the wrong question.
The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve in Marquette County, Michigan, an area that has bucked population decline trends in part by capitalizing on its outdoor amenities.
The Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve in Marquette County, Michigan, an area that has bucked population decline trends in part by capitalizing on its outdoor amenities.John Flesher/AP

Rural regions dominate the American landscape, comprising 97 percent of the country’s land mass. While 20 percent of Americans live in these regions, many still doubt their importance in the 21st century. A new wave of commentary and reports have tackled a question on many urban Americans’ minds: can rural America be “saved”? One of these, a New York Times op-ed by Eduardo Porter, went as far as to say, “one thing seems clear...nobody—not experts or policymakers or people in these communities—seems to know quite how to pick rural America up.” With stagnant or declining populations in many rural counties, and “superstar cities” hogging most of the economic growth, Porter’s view would have us believe that rural life is fading away.

I’ve spent the past four years living in and researching rural communities in Michigan and Wisconsin, trying to understand how rural people use modern technology to further their livelihoods. Rural businesses and economic developers have many tools at their disposal to do what makes the most sense for their communities. But an economic growth perspective—largely a result of neoliberal economic policies—makes assumptions about what success looks like. And while the growth prospects of rural America may come across as dire, accounts such as Porter’s largely ignore the work being done on the ground by rural communities to save themselves.