A recent survey of bankers in a 10-state region has confirmed what rural residents already know: While the more densely populated portions of the country are seeing economic recovery, rural areas are still losing ground.
Bankers in the region that includes Colorado, Wyoming and eight Midwestern states say that its Rural Mainstreet Index has fallen to 39.6 on a 100-point scale, where anything under 50 indicates a shrinking economy.
That’s no surprise; it’s one of the forces that propelled Donald Trump into the presidency.
The region is hardly monolithic. Southwest Colorado is very different from Illinois farming country, while the oil-rich portions of North Dakota don’t have a lot in common with most of Missouri.
Growth ripples out from urban centers, while truly rural areas are left far behind.
The components of a community matter, as well. Southwest Colorado, although not particularly large in population, benefits from the diverse bases of tourism, and energy extraction, a college and a community college.
Recent data from Colorado’s Region 9 shows La Plata and Archuleta job numbers growing at 3 percent in 2016. San Juan County gained 7 percent, although the actual number of jobs is small and the pendulum can swing rapidly.
Dolores County’s percentage loss was well into double digits – again, not thousands or even hundreds of jobs, but real pain for a small community.
Montezuma County increased 1 percent, and a Region 9 research consultant said Montezuma has been one of the slowest counties in the area to recover from the recession.
It’s easy to see why: No industry in the county lends itself to big jumps in income or employment. Jobs come a few at a time, and the loss of a manufacturer like Western Excelsior, in Mancos (which isn’t reflected in these statistics), is hard to recoup.
And high-speed internet for all of rural Southwest Colorado remains a distant dream.
The bankers also report that gains are hard won and the increments are either tiny or jarring. Prices of agricultural commodities are low (and a rise doesn’t require increased staffing); energy prices have not supported large-scale exploration and development, which boosts employment.
The urban-rural divide will continue to grow, and the resentments it engenders will grow as well. That’s economics, not politics.
Government policies do make a difference, though, and Americans who don’t live in big cities or on the coasts would benefit greatly from more focused, thoughtful attention by the politicians who simply fly over.