Will the events of the past year, including the pandemic, prove to be the spark that ignites a rural revival?

Challenge and adversity lead to change, and necessity is often said to be the mother of invention. We have certainly experienced adversity and challenge over the past year, both of which have forced us to become more resourceful. At the same time, America is dealing with social unrest and seeking to better understand long-standing cultural norms. Some have suggested we are experiencing a cultural revolution.  

 Regardless of how you feel about the past year, it is time to explore the possibility of a rural revival. Could we be on the cusp of a rural renaissance?

I believe a Great Awakening is not only possible, but I submit it will happen. The endless concentration of the American population to a few densely inhabited metroplexes is both undesirable and unsustainable. While the political, finance and banking, manufacturing, and service industries are well suited to the city, production of food, fiber, and shelter takes place in rural America. When it comes to feeding and clothing Americans, rural areas do best.

There is certainly a great deal of back and forth about the virtues of rural life. Going rural involves choices: whether you were born in a rural community and never left, moved away and came back, or you are a recent transplant, you made a choice to live in rural America. If you have not gone rural, what might entice you to look past the amenities of urban and suburban living to choose rural?

 No doubt, rural life presents certain challenges, many of which are easy to enumerate. In a recent post titled “New ‘Distressed Community’ Ratings Reinforce View That Georgia’s Haves and Have-nots Split Along the Gnat Line” published to Charlie Hayslett’s blog “Trouble in God’s Country”, Hayslett identifies the Distressed Communities Index (DCI), an eloquent amalgamation of demographic statistics that demonstrates many of the differences between Georgia communities doing seemingly well and those that are struggling. The article summarizes sobering statistics compiled by a Washington, D.C. think tank in a way that will make you go back for a second read after you sigh in disbelief and scratch your head.

I do not always agree with Hayslett, but his unapologetic presentation of blunt and painful “facts” about rural Georgia makes me think. In fact, they often make me mad – mad enough to say, “No, Charlie, us proud-to-be rural folks won’t give up that easy.”

The acclaimed Pew Research Center recently published an exhaustive study, “What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities.” The article delves deeply into facts and figures comparing how rural, suburban and urban dwellers think about religion, education, politics and social issues. The study reveals those who live in urban, suburban and rural communities think differently and score their priorities differently.

 One of the most important revelations in the Pew study, but one that was not surprising to me, was that adult rural dwellers are not likely to relocate to an urban or suburban community. By the same token, their urban counterparts aren’t likely to relocate to a rural community. Rural dwellers may say, well and good, let them stay in the city. Hold on! We need to think about that.

 Rural communities across Georgia are facing a population decline. Many young people move away after high school to seek higher education, join the military, or simply experience the world. Young people often feel compelled to wander, pursuing the desire for a new experience. While away, they may become accustomed, some might say addicted, to a lifestyle that makes their return unlikely, but others, like me, never lose their passion for rural life.

Fewer young people have chosen to return to rural areas in recent decades, and the median age of rural communities continues to rise while the number of young parents with small children living in rural communities declines.

If a rural revival is to occur, we must encourage the return of young people. We need young couples who are educated, energetic and resourceful to move to rural communities and raise their families.

 The Pew study shows across urban, suburban and rural dwellers, the top three community attributes that young families are looking for include:

• A good place to raise children

• Access to recreational and outdoor activities

• Family nearby

Rural communities offer the first two, and young families are welcome to bring their extended families so relatives will be nearby. The more, the merrier. So, why aren’t young people flocking to rural communities?

Young families will move to rural communities when they sense economic opportunity, see quality education, and have access to healthcare.

Economics: Unless you are independently wealthy, you must be able to provide for a family. That means a job or the opportunity to own a business. Opportunities do exist in rural communities. The Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation can help you find that opportunity.

 Oftentimes, we only look at the income side of the equation. Equally important is the cost of living. In many cases, it is cheaper to live in a rural community. If you are inclined to be more self-sustaining, the cost can be far less.

For those with an adventuresome or entrepreneurial spirit, now may be the time. Technology and transportation have created many new opportunities that make place of residence less constraining. COVID-19 has taught us the how and when of work is more important than the where. I spent more of 2020 working from home on a rural southwest Georgia farm than I did from the office. We have all learned a great deal about working remotely. Let’s capitalize on that to make living in a rural community a good option for more people.

Education: We all want good educational opportunities for our kids. Our education system has really come under fire during the pandemic. This is especially true for public K-12 education. Many school kids have been out of the classroom for nearly a year, missing the instruction, competition, and socialization that occur in a structured classroom. They have also missed the arts, athletics and other activities that round out the educational experience.

Many families have discovered alternatives – private schools, parochial schools or home school. Some families have relocated so children can have a better school experience. I’m not saying rural communities necessarily offer better options for education, but, over the past year, the bar for educational attainment has certainly been lowered, and it seems to me that smaller schools, like those in rural communities, have often navigated the turbulent waters better than large urban and suburban schools.

Health care: Access to primary and specialized health care is sometimes a challenge in rural communities, but where there is a will, there is a way. In Georgia, I think we’ve rounded a corner. With the help of the Georgia Rural Hospital Stabilization Program, and innovation like that seen in recent years at the Miller County Hospital and Clinch Memorial Hospital, the future looks much brighter.

 Private and public healthcare sectors are finding new ways to provide better access to health care. Mercer University’s School of Medicine has made a strong commitment to train physicians who are committed to serve Georgia’s rural communities, and is increasing access to primary care by opening clinics in Plains, Fort Gaines, Fort Valley, and Eatonton, with the promise of more to come. Mercer is also home to Georgia’s Rural Health Innovation Center.

 In recent months, private clinics are popping up around Georgia in unexpected places, like Preston. There, an ambitious rural entrepreneur pharmacist, Nikki Bryant, is seeing to it that people in one of Georgia’s least populated counties have access to health care.

 And, the Global Partnership for Telehealth, headquartered in Blackshear, is now a nationally and internationally recognized leader in telehealth services. The Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation is working with the Partnership (GPT) to expand services within Georgia’s rural K-12 education systems, and the Georgia Rural Health Innovation Center is using their services in their clinic network.

 Anything is possible when people pull together and make a commitment to a better life. Rural communities have much to offer, especially in these trying times. If you want space to spread out and breathe clean air, enjoy nature, become more self-reliant and raise your family with an emphasis on quality of life, you may want to go rural. It is all about priorities and choices. Come be part of this rural renaissance.

•Dr. David Bridges is the Interim Director of Georgia’s Rural Center and the President of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.