by Ann Eisenberg, Jessica A. Shoemaker, and Lisa R. Pruitt , The Conversation
It’s no secret that rural and urban people have grown apart culturally and economically in recent years. A quick glance at the media — especially social media — confirms an ideological gap has also widened.
City folks have long been detached from rural conditions. Even in the 1700s, urbanites labeled rural people as backward or different. And lately, urban views of rural people have deteriorated.
All three of us are law professors who study and advocate intervention to assist distressed rural communities. The response we often hear is, “You expect me to care about those far-off places, especially given the way the people there vote?”
Our answer is “yes.”
Rural communities provide much of the food and energy that fuel our lives. They are made up of people who, after decades of exploitative resource extraction and neglect, need strong connective infrastructure and opportunities to pursue regional prosperity. A lack of investment in broadband, schools, jobs, sustainable farms, hospitals, roads, and even the US Postal Service has increasingly driven rural voters to seek change from national politics. And this sharp hunger for change gave Trump’s promises to disrupt the status quo particular appeal in rural areas.
Metropolitan stakeholders often complain that the Electoral College and US Senate give less populous states disproportionate power nationally. Yet that power has not steered enough resources, infrastructure investment, and jobs to rural America for communities to survive and thrive.
So, how can the federal government help?
Based on our years of research into rural issues, here are five federal initiatives that would go a long way toward empowering distressed rural communities to improve their destinies, while also helping bridge the urban/rural divide.
1. Get high-speed internet to the rest of rural America
The COVID-19 era has made more acute something rural communities were already familiar with: High-speed internet is the gateway to everything. Education, work, health care, information access, and even a social life depend directly on broadband.
Yet 22.3% of rural residents and 27.7% of tribal lands residents lacked access to high-speed internet as of 2018, compared with 1.5% of urban residents.
The Trump administration undermined progress on the digital divide in 2018 by reversing an Obama-era rule that categorized broadband as a public utility, like electricity. When broadband was regulated as a utility, the government could ensure fairer access even in regions that were less profitable for service providers. The reversal left rural communities more vulnerable to the whims of competitive markets.
Although President Joe Biden has signaled support for rural broadband expansion, it’s not yet clear what the Federal Communications Commission might do under his leadership. Recategorizing broadband as a public utility could help close the digital divide.