The blog of the Urban Institute
September 21, 2021

Three Ways to Promote Equitable Rural Investments

The Biden administration’s economic and infrastructure agenda prioritizes funding improvements in physical and human capital, including education, health care, child support, climate resilience, and affordable housing. The proposed significant spending plan would advance these goals, and because rural counties account for more than 97 percent of the country’s land area and house one of every five Americans, rural communities stand to benefit.

But for the funding to be most effective, federal, state, and local policymakers and practitioners need information about the communities they serve. There is no single rural America, and thus no single strategy that should be used across all its communities. From remote recreational areas to accessible energy-rich hubs, rural places exhibit a diversity of culture, languages, local industries, and basic infrastructure like roads, water, and broadband. These differences require tailored investments that leverage a place’s local strengths and assets.

We illustrate the many, varied rural realities in our new typology and dashboard, which categorizes rural census tracts into one of seven asset-based peer groups. Paired with other local data, rural practitioners can use the tool to brainstorm and enhance strategies that build upon rural assets. State and local policymakers can combine the tool with local data sources to pursue policies that promote an asset-based recovery. And national stakeholders and funders, including federal agencies and philanthropic foundations, can explore patterns of regional variation to better target investments.

A map showing the seven peer groups that rural census tracts fall into nationwide.

Below, we highlight three ways practitioners, policymakers, and investors can use our new mapping tool to promote equitable investments for all types of rural communities.

1. Invest in supports that go beyond physical infrastructure

The rural South has among the best access to important infrastructure, such as schools, fire stations, and health care facilities. But these places also face some of the greatest challenges related to labor force participation, life expectancy, and access to financial capital.

Take Greenville, Mississippi, a small city in the heart of the Mississippi Delta region, for example. Residents of census tract 10 in Greenville, just north of US Highway 82, have three health care facilities and live no more than a quarter mile away from any one of them, putting it in the top 5 percent of all rural tracts. Residents also live in close proximity to education facilities, with two elementary schools located within the tract and residents living an average of no more than a half mile away (top 10 percent of rural tracts).

But proximity to these resources is not the same as access. Health, education, and employment are challenges for the predominantly Black non-Hispanic population (93 percent) who lives in this census tract. On average, life expectancy is just 63 years, and only three of every five adults have completed high school or participate in the labor force. This tract scores in the bottom 10 percent of all rural tracts on these measures.

Targeted strategies that leverage local assets to increase employment opportunities, enhance connections to education and training, and improve health and well-being are critical for supporting equitable investments in communities like Greenville. 

2. Honor tribal sovereignty and recognize the diversity of strengths across tribal lands and people

Tribal census tracts are not a monolith—each have unique histories, traditions, and sovereign authority and often share characteristics with nontribal tracts. Rather than group tribal tracts together, our analysis finds that tribal tracts appear in all seven peer groups. In some states, such as Oklahoma and Montana, tribal tracts display enough diversity that they appear in all seven peer groups.

Montana has a total of 11 federally recognized tribes living on seven federally recognized reservations across 21 census tracts (with three reservations inhabited by more than 1 tribe). Of the 21 tribal tracts in Montana, nearly half are included in the “Diverse, Institution Rich Hubs” peer group. These tribal areas tend to have better-than-average racial and ethnic diversity, religious diversity, and access to health care facilities. But they also score lower than other rural tracts in terms of life expectancy and labor participation. Montana also has 3 tribal tracts included in the “Centers for Wealth and Health” peer group. Educational attainment, air quality, voter turnout, and political competition in these tracts is average or better than other rural tracts. 

Policymakers and practitioners supporting equitable investments in tribal communities should ensure policies and funding are tailored to the specific strengths and challenges of tribal areas. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to leveraging assets in these places, so recognizing their similarities with broader rural peer groups can help point to shared strategies.

3. Closely monitor potentially widening rural inequities caused by COVID-19

Although the pandemic’s full impact is still unknown, some rural communities will likely continue to lose population as people leave to live in cities. Between 2010 and 2020, rural counties lost population overall as urban counties grew. At the same time, some rural census tracts—particularly those in the “Remote Recreational and Cultural Areas” peer group—may gain population as remote work policies allow people to leave cities and move to lower-cost areas.

Local and state policymakers can monitor these changes using local data sources. Areas losing population to cities are susceptible to declines in economic growth, services, and infrastructure as the tax base dwindles. Policymakers and practitioners can focus on attracting workers from urban areas and retaining residents to promote economic growth. Communities with an influx of new residents can also prioritize preserving existing affordable housing to counteract increasing housing costs and build out public services and infrastructure to keep pace with growing demand.

By combining the typology and dashboard with local sources of data, policymakers and practitioners can ensure investments are targeted to changing rural realities.


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