Rural economies appear to be recovering from the 2008 recession— unemployment rates are down and median income is up. At the same time, surveys indicate that more than 1.5 million rural residents are working but earning below the federal poverty rate. In this state of insecurity, a broken-down car or sick family member could lead to the loss of one’s livelihood. To tackle these issues, the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group and Rural Development Innovation Group hosted a dialogue that highlighted a range of innovations that can help workers get ahead in rural jobs.
Before asking how to make rural jobs better, Beth Mattingly says we must address what is keeping individuals from getting their foot in the door. As the director of research on vulnerable families at the University of New Hampshire, Mattingly studies barriers to employment in both rural and urban places. She noted that the top challenge to employment for the working poor is child care.
Sheila Hoyle is no stranger to this fact. Hoyle lives and works in rural North Carolina, where she directs the Southwestern Child Development Commission. Her agency invests in quality early care and education by training and offering technical assistance to child care providers. Hoyle sees early childhood education as a strong anti-poverty measure for rural families. Not only is quality child care capable of promoting trust, autonomy, and happiness in children, Hoyle said, it can also prepare tomorrow’s workforce. Studies have shown that adults who attended preschool programs were more likely to graduate from high school, hold a job, and earn higher wages.
Those who earn their associates degree see an average increase of $14,000 to their annual wages over those with high school diplomas. Greg Williams, the president of Odessa College in Texas, is on a journey to make his institution a place that keeps pushing that number forward. “Community colleges could be so much more effective if they met students where they are,” he said. Odessa College engages students by allowing them to attend their first class for free. This builds interest in what the school has to offer. Students stay engaged through a streamlined registration process that keeps them on track to graduate. Williams also involves local businesses, creating partnerships that allow for investment in the school and career opportunities for students.
Once part of the workforce, companies must do more to remove the barriers to stable employment. United Way of Mason County in rural Michigan is paving the way through strategies tailored to the community. “The biggest advantage of rural communities is the small size,” said Executive Director Lynne Russell. “We can all get to the table more easily.” Once there, she and her organization have taken creative approaches with the limited resources at their disposal.
Innovations are taking place in rural America at both the policy and ground levels. To learn how this work can be better supported, we should follow the example of those who have made this their life’s mission. Understanding how issues surrounding education, health care, and workforce development are related will help us create a brighter future for our rural communities.