An Introduction to “Rural-Proofing,” and Why We’re Unlikely to Implement It in the U.S.
I learned about the concept and practice of “rural-proofing” on my first trip down under, in 2010. It’s a term Aussie law- and policy-makers use regularly–especially at places like the Rural and Regional Law and Justice Conference, which I keynoted that year. Rural-proofing refers to the process of vetting proposed laws and policies to determine whether and how they will “work” in rural communities, a way of avoiding unintended consequences that might leave rural places worse off than they previously were–or (substantially) worse off than urban places. You might think of it as an environmental impact statement, but with the focus on rural livelihoods rather than on the wider environment. It uses rurality as a the critical lens in relation to a purposeful investigation into the consequences of a proposed law, policy or funding scheme.
Turns out it’s not just Aussies who do this rural-proofing thing. You can find discussions of rural proofing in New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, too. Here’s an academic paper that compares the process in the U.K. to that in Australia. I especially like this New Zealand statement about the foundational tenets that support rural-proofing:
- All people, no matter where they live, should have a reasonable ability to live, work, and to contribute to and be part of New Zealand society.
- Rural people should have the same health outcomes as people living in urban areas.
- Rural people should have access to services that are equivalent to primary health services in urban centres.
- Primary care services in rural areas should be comprehensive, sustainable, provide continuity of care by the right person, at the right time, in the right place.
- Rural communities should be resourced at a level that enables providers to provide the services required.
- Rural people should have access to primary care services that will be accessible into the future.
The New Zealand document also address the “why” rural matters:
• 70% of merchandise exports
• Rural based tourism
• Rural access to healthcare
• Sustainable health services
• Maintaining quality services
I find the first two bullet points especially interesting because in my many years of studying rural people and places, I have often circled back to the conclusion that rural America will not get its due–by which I mean what its people need to flourish in light of its struggles to achieve economies of scale–unless and until it/we/they are able to convince urban America that rural people and places matter, that they are worthy and worth something, that rural and urban are actually interdependent. (Think Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence theory).
What rurality is “worth,” of course, typically boils down to what rural folks produce: food, products of extraction, rural recreation/tourism revenue. These are pretty big deals, of course, but they are shockingly easy to lose sight of in contemporary political discourse. This is a huge topic, and I won’t dig in further here except to note that I always chuckle at images of skyscrapers covered in gardens as the future of how we will feed cities. We may be able to grow more food closer to cities and thus reduce the carbon footprint associated with agriculture, but the U.S. will not continue to play the role it now plays in feeding the world without vast acreage devoted to food production. Most of that acreage will continue to be in places pejoratively referred to as flyover states, in places which are by some definition rural.
Further, the thought of rural America “getting its due”( in the sense I assume is appropriate) increasingly looks like a pipe dream. First, in spite of the fact that Trump played to rural America during his campaign, many are pointing out that he is now not only neglecting rural America, he is seriously and even actively undermining it. Read Paul Krugman’s column focusing on the consequences of Trump’s budget for West Virginia. Other analyses focused on agriculture and rural infrastructure under Trump are here, here and here.
But it is not only Trump and Republican neglect of rural America that concerns me. Nearly as frightening these days is liberal/Democratic disdain for rural people and places. Indeed, it’s a bi-partisan endeavor these days. Bear in mind that Michael Katz, an economist for the FCC, said back in 2009:
Other people don’t like to say bad things about rural areas. So I will.
The notion that we should be helping people who live in rural areas avoid the costs that they impose on society … is misguided, from an efficiency point of view and an equity one.
As for the political economy of rural America in 2017, take this story from today’s Wall Street Journal: Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg report under the rather dramatic (but apparently justified) headline, “Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’.” The story recounts some seriously bleak data:
In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).
As discouraging as these data are many readers’ responses to the story. I’ve taken some screenshots from Janet Adamy’s Twitter very lengthy feed about the piece:
These screen shots are nearly impossible to read, so let me highlight a few comments (other than some rural dwellers saying they didn’t vote for Trump):
Is anyone telling them to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and lock up their addicts, or is that response for city dwellers only?
My response: why, yes, that is exactly what I read J.D. Vance to suggest should happen in his best-selling Hillbilly Elegy. I’m assuming lots of folks agree with him because the book has sold nearly a million copies and is still on the NYTimes bestseller list after nearly a year. (My thoughts on Hillbilly Elegy are here, with links embedded to three others posts in the series here on Concurring Opinions).
This comment is representative of another thread in response to the WSJ story:
they all vote consistently against their own interests while demonizing progressives of all stripes. I can’t bring myself to care.
I see a lot of this “their own damned fault” rhetoric on social media (also applies to the white working class, with which rural populations have significant overlap, not least in the national imaginary). I saw plenty of badmouthing rural folks and their livelihoods before the 2016 election (I wrote a whole darn law review article about it in 2011), but I’m convinced it is far more widespread now. Indeed, a colleague asked me this spring why I was advocating for poor rural white folks in relation to environmental injustice episode. The colleague explained his/her question:
Some of these people were quite powerful in some domains, even exercising electoral power over California (and me) in the last election.
I understand the annoyance and agitation, but I’m not willing to give up on rural dwellers or the white working class–not yet anyway (huge topic; read my other work; more to follow…).
These comments suggest that liberals are not very sympathetic to rural folks and that a particular backlash against them is not only permissible, but may even be in fashion now. All of this raises the question whether a critical mass of folks/leaders give a damn about rural Americans, never mind food production, extraction and (even!) our next foray into the rural and remote recesses for a wilderness experience (Yellowstone, anyone? maybe the Great Smoky Mountains or the Shenandoah National Park if you are back east).
Nevertheless, assuming for a moment that we might care enough about rural America to engage in rural-proofing, let’s return to the New Zealand statement I quoted above. This NZ policy document points up the fact that rural proofing is often discussed and done in relation to rural health initiatives (and here’s a tool for that purpose; read more here). Yet the concept and practice need not be so limited. Indeed, some of my earlier work, while not using the term “rural-proofing,” has illustrated the mis-match between federal law- and policy-making on the one hand and rural realities on the other. In Missing the Mark: Welfare Reform and Rural Poverty, I argued that “welfare reform” in 1996 didn’t “work” in rural places because of rural differences–in particular, limited job markets, lack of child care, and lack of transportation infrastructure/public transit that could actually get people to the jobs they were required to have in order to continue to receive welfare.
This is a topic that Adamy and Overberg pick up in their story today (quoting me, I’m pleased to report), and it’s one to which I’ll return in my next post, which will focus on rural labor markets in relation to this practice of rural-proofing.