Rural communities are in a bind, but policy makers on a state and federal level don’t seem up for the challenge.
Georgia’s rural communities face poor employment prospects; the rural unemployment rate is more than twice the levels seen in the state’s urban hubs. Rural hospitals are shuttering, leaving behind communities without a key source of health care or employment. The lack of reliable broadband poses challenges for cultivating new business investments. And the list of barriers and challenges goes on.
Now, the new education policies being proposed on a federal level — not surprisingly school privatization initiatives being headed by new Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — is not shaping up to improve the status quo in rural communities either. Georgians living in rural communities are already less likely to have a high school diploma, let alone more advanced degrees (which are often linked with higher earnings).
As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Get Schooled blog notes:
DeVos and President Donald Trump propose relying more on vouchers and charter schools to educate America’s children, but neither charters nor vouchers is a likely reform strategy for rural areas. Most rural areas have few private schools, and they lack the conditions needed to attract the successful charter school networks. While three-quarters of urban students have the option of enrolling in another nearby school, federal data show only 21 percent of rural students with that same access.
On the state level, you can find leaders talking up the value of these communities and the need to invest. There are state grants to foster STEM educational opportunities — that’s science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — in rural communities.
But state plans like the “rural hospital stabilization” committee to study the issues plaguing rural health care, tax incentives for investing in rural hospitals and small town jobs don’t go nearly far enough. There are lots and lots of plans and talk about improving lives in rural Georgia, yet this state’s rural communities continue to struggle.
Conservative policy makers tend to lean on a very narrow set of policy tools like reducing regulations and providing special interest tax cuts, but these policies are not enough. And as rural Georgians struggle to find decent-paying jobs and one rural hospital after another shutters, it’s clear that these conservative policies are failing our communities.
Everyone agrees rural Georgia needs help, but it’s time for leaders in this state and in the White House to actually commit to changing the status quo in rural communities. Rural communities deserve to have the state invest in them.
For instance, by expanding Medicaid and allowing the federal dollars Georgians have already paid into the system to flow back into our state, we could be one step closer to making sure everyone has access to health care (and every hospital or clinic has a base of people who can pay for services).
It’s not possible to tax credit your way into a healthy economy or healthy, thriving residents — although certainly tax credits can be a useful policy tool. But this state’s leaders need to be willing to broaden the sets of tools they use if things are going to change. And things definitely need to change.