Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative
The people, places and natural resources of rural America play a vital role in the nation’s economy and culture. Yet rural communities are facing unique challenges in their ability to address the forces that are transforming rural places in ways that threaten community viability and well-being. They are concerned with the loss of their futures, in the form of living wage jobs and educational opportunities for, and flight of, their young people (W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 2001; Pew Partnership, 2000). Rural Oregonians share these concerns: they are significantly more likely than urban Oregonians to list the economy, lack of jobs/unemployment, education, and health care as the most important issues facing the country (Steel, 2004).
- Rural Oregon’s unemployment rate runs about 25% higher than urban Oregon’s and rural Oregon’s poverty rate is approximately 18% higher than urban Oregon’s.
- The income gap between rural Oregon and the rest of the country has grown over the past three decades. In 1969, Rural Oregon’s per capita income was 86% of the national average; in 2001 it was 75%.
- Technological improvements in the agriculture and wood products sectors and globalization of the economy increased the output per worker and competition and put downward pressure on prices, jobs, salaries, and profits.
- In 1969, both rural and urban counties received an average of 75% of their income from net earnings and 25% came from dividends, rents, and transfer payments (e.g. social security). In 2001, the average proportions of income derived from dividends, rents, and transfer payments was 49% for rural counties and 39% for urban counties.
- With recent patterns of migration and immigration, rural cultural landscapes are changing faster than their urban counterparts. Many rural communities are aging with the out-migration of youth and/or in-migration of retirees. There is also increasing cultural diversity with growing numbers of international migrants.
Little is known about what works and what doesn’t in improving the economic and social conditions in rural places, about how community actions or outside policy makers can strengthen the economic and social fabric in rural communities. We do know that the rural communities themselves must work as full partners to develop strategies for overcoming the disadvantages that come with lack of scale and geographic isolation.
The Rural Studies Program at Oregon State University has developed a statewide, multi-disciplinary program from five colleges and the Extension Service to develop a new and unique model of University engagement with rural communities. This model involves partners from other universities, governments, and the nonprofit sector in creating new educational opportunities, applied and fundamental research, and outreach that address the needs of rural communities.
This program has four objectives:
- Prepare a new generation of community leaders, professionals, and scholars with capacity to take on the kinds of complex, often messy situations that emerge as rural communities seek economic and social viability.
- Generate new knowledge about the challenges facing rural communities and what policies work best in rural places for achieving sustainability.
- Engage rural communities in learning about their strengths and opportunities and in developing place-specific strategies to support long-term development.
- Build broader public understanding about the contributions of, and constraints faced by, rural communities and about the impacts of federal and state policy on rural communities.