Angus McGregor, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, considers Thomas Jefferson’s thinking about rural economies in the United States. He concludes the need for a revolution of progressive rural development addressing income and political gaps between rural and urban communities, thus moving the United States closer to Jefferson’s hope; a nation committed to a democratization of prosperity.
In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bands” (Jefferson, 1829). As an agrarian Jefferson originally believed that the true nature of this new America was to be found on the development of an agrarian society. In his earlier writings he promoted the idea that, “The United States could remain a decentralized, agrarian-based republic and thereby avoid the class strife attendant with urbanization” (Shi, 2007). The United States was abundant in natural resources, space, and with a growing population the importance of producing goods and products for domestic sale and international trade was to become the United States economic connection to the rest of the world. For Jefferson, the strength and potential of the American identity was largely based on rural communities with strong agrarian based economies becoming the framework for this young country’s growth on the global stage.
The evolution of Jefferson’s vision for rural America
Jefferson’s thinking about the role rural economies would have in the United States changed over time as the agrarian 18th century transitioned into a more industrial and commerce driven 19th century and Jefferson’s agrarian vision weakened when compared to Alexander Hamilton’s more centralized idea of commerce as the means to enrich the country and establish the United States as an emerging global economic power. Jefferson observed the growing changes in the American society and later in his life his thinking evolved to include that common citizens should not only labor as producers in the fields and factories, but should also have access to the emerging benefits of the Hamilton-styled world of commerce and progress. With the march of time and modernity on the horizon, Jefferson seemed to place faith in the common citizen to decide how to balance rural and simpler communities with a more centralized and urban economy. With the democratization of prosperity, the instincts of citizens would come in line with the greater good, and man would become “an agent of progress rather than a pawn of fate” (Shi, 2007). However, this hope proved to be too idealistic and as Jefferson said, “I fear, from the experience of the last twenty-five years that morals do not of necessity, advance hand in hand with the sciences” (Shi, 2007).
Jefferson foresaw the condition where the basic lifestyle and ethos of society would come to a direct confrontation with the advances of technology and modernity. The decline and weakening of the rural way of life in the United States is a condition that unites the past with the present as agrarian communities continue to grapple with a political and economic system centralized in the urban and corporate centers, an evolving borderless and globalized economy, and a demographic shift resulting from the increase migration of “others” to their communities. Yet, rural Americans aren’t as angry with the decline in the traditional population as they are with the lifestyle changes resulting from years of neglect. As Robert Wuthnow writes in The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small Town America “…they hankered for the “good ol’ days when there was a “five and dime” store, a carousel in the park, and the community had its own brass band” (Wuthnow, 2018). Change as a concept was being viewed as something to be weary of and avoided when possible as it presented unknown challenges to the traditions that were binding the community. As a result, the avoidance of change is what actually ends up preventing the necessary evolution of many of these communities. “Inertia takes hold. What seems right is what has seemed right for a long time” (Wuthnow, 2018). Decades of failed political policies aimed at the economic revitalization of rural regions and a political machinery simplifying the realities of a globalized economy have pushed many communities waxing nostalgic to a breaking point, furthering the polarization between rural and urban, local and global, insiders and outsiders.
Ernesto Sirolli – Rural investment and enterprise facilitation
While the divide and polarization within the American landscape are deep and disruptive with layers upon layers of complexity, the core solution to re-establishing an eventually balanced equilibrium is economic. Washington has proposed numerous economic-revitalization plans over the years and many have failed due to the centralized complexity, political folly of politicians, and a disenfranchised local population. Wuthnow writes, “The (local) development officers we talked to were to a person frustrated…It was nearly impossible to achieve anything truly ambitious. Being located too far from a city, not having an interstate highway nearby, and being the small kid on the block among larger players were usually recipes for failure” (Wuthnow, 2018). Decades of neglect and failed policies have brought many of these communities to a desperate condition of fear and loathing resulting in a complete and utter lack of faith in the system.
The traditional rural economy is commodities based – agricultural, minerals, and labor. This economic model has changed over the years due to natural disasters, automation, and globalization as many industries have either died out or moved off-shore to cheaper labor markets. However, the roots and knowledge of a production-based economy, while currently dormant, still exist in many of these communities. A paradigm shift in the thought process is required to effectively move rural economies towards a more competitive and equitable future where technology is embraced, new industries based on local resources are encouraged, and communities are economically strengthened leading to more local initiatives to confront other issues of discontent, ranging from bringing back Main Street culture to embracing more diversity in the community. However, in order to empower the local initiatives economic security is necessary to allow communities the proper means necessary to navigate away from a culture of fear and more towards an excitement for the future. This new way of thinking, coupled with emerging technology, would enable society to possibly achieve what Jefferson was advocating for in the 18th century – that the reality of modern, industrial commerce, and the agrarian abundance of the American environment, if properly managed, could elevate, rather than disenfranchise, the population.
The extraction of commodities, labor, and human skills from rural regions has created not only a “brain drain”, but also an identity problem that is fueling a cultural divide in the United States that is partially defined by the urban and rural divisions across the country. Instead of lofty political “pork barrel” projects administered by the Federal government that reinforce a paternal and dependent relationship, state governments need to enact local initiatives aimed at fostering independent entrepreneurial programs for rural communities to begin to address the local issues of economic, racial, and political inequality. Ernesto Sirolli, author, public speaker and founder of the Sirolli Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to enterprise facilitation in local communities writes:
“Right now, in your community, at this very moment, there is someone who is dreaming about doing something to improve his/her lot. If we could learn how to help that person to transform their dream into meaningful work, we would be halfway to changing the economic fortunes of the entire community” (Sirolli, 1999).
The problem according to Sirolli is no one is listening or actually helping these communities network their ideas. Sirolli’s techniques in listening, networking, and empowering local communities through facilitation techniques have been successful across the developing world and have also been embraced by some rural communities in Australia, Germany, Canada, and the United States as a means to re-energize local and depressed communities.
A people-centered approach in rural Kansas
In rural Kansas, the state commissioned the Sirolli Institute to guide a program aimed at a “people-centered approach to community and economic development” in helping rural Kansas communities to identify, market, and finance services and products using Sirolli’s philosophy of providing these regions with local facilitators whose job was simply to assist in the networking of ideas and people. According to the Northeast Kansas Enterprise Facilitation (NKEF) website, enterprise facilitators are not experts but people who are good listeners, supportive, well-networked, and able to evaluate the skills and needs of entrepreneurs. The community board includes local business and civic leaders, economic development practitioners, and private sector professionals, and is responsible for hiring and supporting the facilitator. Board members are trained by the Sirolli Institute (Northeast Kansas Enterprise Facilitation, 2021). NKEF operates in 5 rural counties, and reports it has assisted 1,514 clients who started over 269 businesses, creating over 982 jobs across northeast Kansas, utilizing Sirolli’s ethos of empowering the local community through relationships of facilitation.
The Sirolli Institute promotes a value-added economy over the more accepted model of a resource-driven economy. The value-added economy also prioritizes equitable laws, tolerance, freedom, acceptance, and the collective care for community. The shift towards a local and entrepreneurial based economy can be the economic catalyst for communities to begin dealing with the numerous social issues that are preventing transformative change. The role of government supporting such a change needs to be both proactive (top-down) and responsive (bottom-up). It will have to encourage a change in attitudes towards work and success and to provide infrastructures to facilitate this development (Sirolli, 1999). It also requires genuine interest and support from the local community. Sirolli said, “If people don’t want to be helped, leave them alone” (Sirolli, 1999).
The Biden-Harris plan to increase rural broadband
The newly elected Biden-Harris administration has recognized providing a broadband internet infrastructure network across all corners of the 50 states as a proactive element in developing rural America for a 21st century economy. By building on former president Obama’s plan to establish the categorization of broadband as a public utility, like water and electricity, the current administration is hoping to further invest in digital infrastructure that will decrease the digital divide between urban and rural communities. A 2018 report prepared by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) states the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates that about 30% of rural residents, about 20 million people, do not have access to land-based broadband connectivity. The report further highlights a World Bank study that reports a 10% increase in broadband coverage can lead to a 1.21% jump in GDP growth in developed economies (Bock, et al., 2018). Broadband has the potential to become a vital lifeline for rural economies, providing the necessary tools for responsive local-based, small and medium business projects to further expand not only their network, but also their growth potential, all while revitalizing their communities and contributing to national economic strength.
The United States is currently in need of a new revolution of progressive rural development that will address the income and political gap between rural and urban communities. Idea generating thinkers who are locally based and committed to regional development are needed to facilitate the implementation of new entrepreneurial ventures to rural communities that will stimulate equitable economic growth. Support from federal and state governments, educational institutions, and financial networks in projects such as those that increase the infrastructure for a more extensive rural broadband network can assist local community teams which are motivated to network their ideas towards contributing to vibrant, affordable, and inclusive communities. Rural investment projects focused on both proactive and responsive projects can enable communities which will encourage the protection of some traditions, the embracing of change, and the acceptance of diversity, while working towards regaining an equilibrium between the urban and rural disconnect, moving the United States closer to Jefferson’s hope for a nation committed to a democratization of prosperity.
Kyoto Gaidai Nishi High School, and Kyoto University of Foreign Studies, Japan
Banner: Kansas USA. Chandler Cruttenden, Unsplash
Bock, W., et al. (June 4, 2018). The Economic Case for Bringing Broadband to the Rural US. Boston Consulting Group. Retrieved from: https://www.bcg.com/en-us/publications/2018/economic-case-bringing-broadband-rural-united-states
Federal Communications Commission (April 20, 2020). 2020 Broadband Development Report. Retrieved from: https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-20-50A1.pdf
Jefferson, T., Randolph, T. Jefferson. (1829). Memoirs, correspondence, and private papers of Thomas Jefferson: late president of the United States. London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley.
Northeast Kansas Enterprise Facilitation (2021). Retrieved from: https://nekef.org/
Rash, W. (January 27, 2021). How the Biden Administration Plans to Expand Broadband. Forbes. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/waynerash/2021/01/27/how-the-biden-administration-plans-to-expand-broadband/?sh=62f308a36264
Shi, D. (2007). The Simple Life: Plain living and high thinking in American Culture. Athens, Georgia: The University of Georgia Press.
Sirolli, E. (1999). Ripples from the Zambezi: Passion, Entrepreneurship, and the Rebirth of Local Economies. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.
Sirolli, E. (2012). Want to help someone? Shut up and listen! (Video). TED conferences. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen?language=en
Wuthnow, R. (2018). The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.