Rural Community Key Issues
Rural communities face challenges related to demographic changes, workforce development, capital access, infrastructure, health, land use and environment and community preservation. Compared to their urban counterparts, rural areas have less internet access, fewer educational institutions, see more hospitals close and experience less economic growth.
NCSL has research and other resources related to state legislative efforts regarding challenges and policy options for rural communities through several program efforts, including agriculture, environment, energy, education and transportation.
- NCSL LegisBrief on Rural Populations Growing Slowly, Sept. 2019.
Several state legislatures have addressed rural economic concerns through the creation of initiatives, committees, councils, task forces and agencies. Some of these efforts have existed for some time, such as the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and New York’s Legislative Commission on Rural Resources. Other efforts, including the Georgia House Rural Development Council and the Rural Wisconsin Initiative, are more recent.
NCSL has identified ten state legislatures with efforts on rural economic policy: California, Georgia, Kansas, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Kansas House Rural Revitalization Committee seeks to sponsor policy responses regarding concerns of rural areas and communities in their state. New Hampshire Commission on Rural Affairs seeks to make recommendations relating to public policy that specifically affects rural areas and rural people. Members of the state House and Senate participate on the commission.
A 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture report lists several drivers needed for a robust rural economy, such as access to broadband, natural amenities and a strong workforce. Research from Headwaters Economics points to a diverse economy with access to transportation as critical to rural success. A 2018 report by the U.S. Department of Commerce identifies outdoor recreation as one of the foremost drivers of rural economies.
Here are additional NCSL resources on rural economic development:
- NCSL LegisBrief on Rural Populations Growing, Slowly
- NCSL LegisBrief on Jump-Starting Rural Economies.
- NCSL LegisBrief on Boosting America's Rural Workforce.
Broadband is considered by many to be a fundamental vehicle for new services and applications—such as telemedicine, telecommuting and online education—that require high-speed internet connections. State legislative involvement in broadband has been an important factor for the successful implementation of broadband in the states. Rural areas have 37 percent more residents without broadband access than their urban counterparts. Filling Gaps in Broadband Development, an NCSL LegisBrief discusses state efforts to promote rural broadband. The Advanced Communications Law & Policy Institute at New York University Law School has studied state policies regarding rural broadband and worked with NCSL regarding policy options.
The NCSL report Expanding Broadband Access for All Learners discusses broadband access in the classroom, outlines state policy actions and summarizes state policy considerations.
Fifty-three percent of U.S. school districts are rural. However, rural education faces unique challenges, such as limited resources, a constrained tax base and demographic shifts. The rural population is decreasing, aging and migratory, and, as a result, these communities present unique challenges in providing quality education with limited resources. This lack of access means rural residents are more likely to have lower educational attainment.
National education challenges, such as broadband access and teacher shortages, are further amplified in rural communities. The NCSL report Expanding Broadband Access for All Learners discusses broadband access in the classroom, outlines state policy actions and summarizes state policy considerations. The NCSL LegisBrief Tackling Teacher and Principal Shortages in Rural Areas discusses the workforce recruitment and retention challenges facing rural schools and how state policymakers are addressing the issues. Two other reports review rural education; the first is a LegisBrief entitled ‘A Snapshot of Rural Afterschool in America’ and the second is a report on postsecondary opportunities in rural areas entitled ‘Planting the Seeds, Working the Land: Postsecondary Programs in Rural Areas.’
Residents in rural counties often face difficulty accessing health care services. Those living in rural counties are more likely to be uninsured, live within a health professional shortage area and experience a local hospital closure. In addition to the scarcity of primary care providers and services in rural areas, the people who live there also often lack access to mental health and other behavioral health services, long-term care options for seniors, emergency medical services, and other essential services. To reduce inefficiencies and improve care for rural residents, state legislatures seek innovative ways to address health workforce shortages and to better coordinate care.
NCSL’s Health Program has several documents related to rural health care. Improving Rural Health: State Policy Options discusses policies states have undertaken to address rural health. The NCSL LegisBrief Tackling Rural Hospital Closures explores innovative solutions to ensure rural residents receive critical health services and the NCSL blog Rural Americans More Likely to Die from Preventable Causes discusses the challenges rural residents face in preventing the five leading causes of death and offers policy solutions.
Agriculture, including food, fiber, fuel and other bio-based products, has been an important economic and social driver in rural communities. Producers, distributors, processors and retailers all play a role in the food system to get agricultural products from farm to table in both domestic and international markets. State lawmakers consider policy issues related to farmland preservation, food safety and labeling and innovative crops (i.e., industrial hemp), regulate the use of pesticides and natural resources, and support the next generation of farmers.
NCSL has information regarding industrial hemp, farmers’ markets and a LegisBrief on the Growing Interest in Urban Agriculture.