RFI Serviceship Student, Trenton Buhr article published in the Lincoln Journal Star

Local View: We can reverse rural population drain

This past summer, I spent three months in Red Cloud working on economic development through Rural Futures Institute Student Serviceship. While there, I was able to see firsthand how a rural Midwest town navigates numerous issues.

Surprisingly, coming up with money didn’t seem to be the biggest hurdle. As the town considered different options, we continued to peg ourselves on the city’s human — not economic — resources.

Rural population decline in Nebraska has been marching steadily since the Great Depression. In recent decades, the government has combated the resulting economic issues with many programs. They typically come in the shape of grants or low-interest loans.

Many programs are available to any community, but some, such as USDA Rural Development programs, exist solely for rural areas. Even with these efforts to bring rural areas up-to-date and become economically sustainable, we still see many towns lagging.

Rural areas are, by definition, sparsely populated. However, trends beginning after World War II set in motion a rural American landscape that was brain drained and staggering from an incredibly fast drop in population in addition to the small workforce.

Throughout all of this change, these communities need to exist to make sure the world’s breadbasket is alive and well. After the ag crash in the 1980s, financial programs came into full force, and many communities were able to reap the benefits and become self-sustainable regional hubs. Yet, the vast majority of Nebraska villages and towns are still losing population.

This may seem obvious, but these programs do not simply give away money. The applications are rigorous and take years of dedicated effort to oversee. Large cities usually boast the organizational structure and have staff trained in economic development at hand for seizing these opportunities.

Small towns typically do not have either of these benefits. The city council meets once, maybe twice, a month, and economic developers are few. These towns subsist almost solely on boards of volunteers with families and full-time jobs to manage. Most people don’t have time to research grants — let alone write them.