Headwinds in 2017

After a new president is sworn in, what happens to rural and small town America?

By Diane Smith

Let’s look ahead to 2017. After the dust from this election season clears and a new president is sworn in, what happens to rural and small town America? Clearly, in the past year there’s been a collective cry of dissatisfaction across America that’s come from all corners and grown louder with each passing day. Much of that primal scream has come from rural and small town Americans. The Economist sums it up pretty well:

“The first presidential debate exposed, with unhappy clarity, how the candidates are speaking to two different Americas. The Trump and Clinton coalitions do not just disagree about tax rates or health policy. Their worlds hardly overlap….To Mr. Trump and his backers, politicians like Mrs. Clinton have allowed jobs to be stolen, let murderous immigrants and terrorists stream across open borders, and spent American blood and treasure on naive attempts at nation-building in far-flung corners of an ungrateful world. And by failing to secure America, such self-dealing, rotten elites have lost the right to be heard on any other subject. Meanwhile, in pressing the case that Mr. Trump is guilty of racism and sexism, Mrs. Clinton is appealing to slices of the electorate that she needs in her corner—black voters, Hispanics, young people and college-educated whites—and whose moral code says that an unrepentant bigot can hardly claim to be a good person.”

So what happens next year? Rural and small towns face unique challenges in education, healthcare, aging populations, infrastructure and so forth. But these days our most often reported problem is the opioid epidemic. While opioid addiction is certainly worth our attention, we also have lots of other challenges … and opportunities.

That’s one of our biggest headwinds heading into 2017. Those of us in rural and small town America are going to have to explain to one of these two candidates (and their thousands of employees) what we want from our government in 2017 and beyond. America, if we are to thrive as a nation, will have to collectively address policies regarding immigration, wealth inequality, national debt, etc. Within each “big” national policy deliberation, however, there are nuances that will have a direct effect on the vitality and futures of our backyards.

If we presume that folks inside the beltway will figure out these nuances for us, we will be sadly disappointed yet again. If rural and small town Americans are dissatisfied with our government, maybe one reason is that we let important policy decisions get made by folks with little knowledge of our lives “off the beaten path”. That’s going to have to change and it’s going to be hard work. It requires a sophisticated understanding of the policy process and the resources to participate in seemingly interminable negotiations. In other words, if we want a government that works better for us, we’re going to have to roll up our sleeves as well.    

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