Urban Wire How to Improve Evidence to Drive Rural Policy and Investments
Corianne Payton Scally, Anne N. Junod
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Following decades of public- and private-sector disinvestment, rural communities are receiving renewed attention and, potentially, resources. The recent Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and CHIPS and Science Act mark infusions of economic development and infrastructure capital at scales not seen in nearly a hundred years. And growing networks of rural practitioners are sharing strategies and taking action, ready to mobilize new resources for transformative change.

However, without systematic, high-quality evidence on what works for rural people and places—that highlights the nuances of where, why, and how—many rural places are at risk of being left out, even while they face significant inequities in assets and resources. To drive targeted, more comprehensive rural-conscious policymaking and shape more strategic investments that leverage national evidence with local community assets to advance rural equity and prosperity, changemakers need both broad and deep evidence at local, regional, and national scales.

The current status quo of rural research

Policy-relevant rural research certainly exists, but its scope is limited compared with research produced on urban contexts, including here at the Urban Institute. Why is this?

Federally sponsored rural development research is sparse and siloed. Although the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) invests substantially in agricultural research, they lack a strong mandate for broad, visionary rural development research and program evaluation focused on community impacts. Both internally conducted research (PDF) and external research funding via USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture focuses primarily on food and agricultural issues—which, although key rural industries, make up a very small share of local rural economies. Similarly, although USDA’s Economic Research Service produces critical and timely analysis of rural economic indicators, it’s not tasked with comprehensive program evaluation.

Nonfederal investors with rural portfolios are committed to their issues and regions but lack a collective vision and voice for effecting national rural prosperity. There is value and need for what many regional, local, and corporate philanthropies and investors with rural priorities regularly fund: direct services, local leadership development, organizational capacity building, and capital infusions in places that have been systematically left behind. But there’s also need for growing and coordinating knowledge and evidence across places, agencies, and organizations capable of inspiring enduring transformation across all of rural America.

The assets and diversity of rural communities are poorly understood and poorly mobilized by policies and investments, impeding equity and prosperity. Homogenizing stereotypes of rural people and places as racially and ethnically white, bucolic, agrarian, and often socially and culturally unsophisticated masks the thriving cultural, social, racial, and economic diversity of rural communities. Just like cities, many rural opportunities and challenges are not one-size-fits-all but are often unique and require tailored policy solutions. Yet we lack a coordinated rural research base driven by community voices that builds on the diversity of rural communities and people to guide effective investments.

A transformative vision for rural research

Better evidence can drive more strategic policies and investments to strengthen and support thriving rural communities. Here’s what’s needed to get there:

  1. Value and fund rural research at a national level. Both public and private funders can coordinate national research strategies and advance evidence-based policy recommendations to benefit rural communities. Increasing federal research funding and deepening coordination between federal agencies that administer rural-eligible programs would support the expansion of evidence-based rural investments. Federal agencies and policymakers can systematically increase the attention they give to rural communities by making rural guarantees, promoting rural inclusion in all eligible program and funding areas, and incorporating learning, evaluation, and data to measure success. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research offers precedent for centralized and expansive federal research and program evaluation. Private and philanthropic investors can collaborate on and fund national evidence to reinforce their place-based work. Although some private and corporate funders may not be able to fund national-scale work, others who can, should. All will benefit by clear and coordinated direction for future investments regardless of scale.
  1. Boost the policy relevance of rural research by focusing on assets. Philanthropy, policymakers, and researchers working on rural policy can ask deeper questions about what solutions work for different rural communities, why, and what conditions are needed to replicate and tailor solutions in other rural communities across the country. Rather than focusing disproportionately and often reactively on describing rural problems or addressing challenges, an asset-based approach that evaluates policies, programs, and practices in the context of community strengths can inspire community buy-in, institutional collaboration, and advance systems-level and sustained solutions.
  1. Coordinate vision and implementation across funders, researchers, practitioners, community members, and geographies. A responsive and effective national rural research agenda will promote peer learning and engagement across and between these stakeholder groups around the country. Place-based and regional funding institutions, planners, and practitioners alike would benefit from understanding what opportunities, assets, and challenges they share with other rural communities. Likewise, researchers from often-siloed, rural-related academic and professional disciplines like rural sociology, agricultural economics, and environmental sciences can collaborate more purposefully to tackle complex, interdisciplinary rural issues and could engage other disciplines that tend to focus less on rural places but whose insights are also core to rural community outcomes, like planning, health, and criminal justice.
  1. Ground rural research in community voices. A coordinated, national agenda to elevate rural research must be driven by those the research is meant to benefit. A community-driven rural research agenda is key to building and sustaining trust in research processes and providing credibility to the results and policy outcomes. Rural people of diverse cultures, lived experiences, and stakes in the research priorities and outcomes best know their strengths, assets, and needs.

Rural communities deserve coordinated policies and investments that can leverage their assets, help address complex 21st-century challenges, and promote community thriving. Implementing these recommendations can help build a national evidence base that will further rural equity and prosperity.

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Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Community and economic development Community engagement Evidence-based policy capacity Federal budget and economy Infrastructure Place-based initiatives Rural people and places
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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