During last Thursday’s confirmation hearing for Sonny Perdue – the presumptive Secretary of Agriculture – the former Georgia governor faced a barrage of questions from Republicans and Democrats united in their opposition to President Trump’s budget for rural America.
The reason for the pushback? Small Town USA is struggling and cannot endure Trump’s cuts.
While many rural Americans agree, it’s equally clear that these government programs are but a tourniquet to a long-festering economic wound. Simply put, rural counties like mine have lost our competitive advantage to our urban cousins.
Unless and until we fix that challenge, taxpayers will continue to subsidize what is effectively the palliative care of our anemic communities.
So how do you fix a problem that started nearly 200 years ago with the advent of the Industrial Revolution? Is it even possible?
You bet. Just ask South Dakota.
Faced with a dwindling rural population, political leaders in Pierre created a savvy recruiting tool – DakotaRoots.com – and related marketing campaign to peak the interest of young workers.
The pitch was personal. Business leaders, state government officials, and average citizens all reached out to those applicants who expressed a desire to be a Dakotan. These civic leaders worked hard to ensure that interested professionals found the right city and the right job. Sometimes that even included personal phone calls.
Their efforts paid off. More than 4,000 people now call South Dakota home because of the Dakota Roots program.
While these initiatives are laudable, critics rightfully point out that these outcomes are relatively modest. Rural America doesn’t just need a few thousand people to rebuild its economy. It needs millions.
In the language of entrepreneurs, these matchmaking efforts are an important beta test but, unless they are scaled, will have limited impact.
And that is the key to repopulating rural America. There are millions of people who are looking for a new or better life. And there are thousands of unique communities that want to give them just that.
The challenge is connecting them.
Thankfully, America’s tech firms have considerable experience in this field. Just take a closer look at dating websites.
Behind the success of Match and OK Cupid are algorithms designed to find and rank connections between people. To do so, computers consider user preferences about the qualities they’re most keen to find in a mate – blond or brunette, short or tall, humorous or serious. Algorithms then make informed guesses on which profiles best fit.
Not every connection works, of course. (Trust me, I have the bad coffee dates to prove it) But the results are clear: a growing number of us find love and marriage through technology.
So could this matchmaking concept work for rural America?
Imagine if private industry selected 25 communities in each state, focusing on those cities that offered the most promise. Characteristics of chosen towns might include things like affordable housing, healthcare, schools, transportation, proximity to recreation, and low taxes.
Meanwhile, Americans in search of new beginnings would answer a series of questions that would ask which of these characteristics held the most importance. For example, does a user need an airport nearby? If so, must it be five miles away or no more than 50?
A well-designed algorithm would then sort the cities, giving users a “top 10” list of locations best suited to their individual needs. The cities and states hungriest for new talent – like South Dakota, Wyoming, and Idaho – would dedicate people and resources towards recruiting these prospective citizens.
Naysayers might scoff at this effort but they’re ignoring a profound change in the labor market. Data show that young professionals and middle class families are fleeing expensive locations (New York, D.C., Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco) in favor of regional hubs in the Pacific Northwest, the Carolinas, Vermont and South Dakota.
The trend is clear: America’s workers are looking for better options, especially in the face of stagnate wages, student debt, and unfulfilled dreams of buying a home. They’re looking for tools to help them find these hidden communities.
Turns out, rural America has them.
All of this leaves small towns with a choice. Communities like mine can certainly wait for more welfare programs to trickle down from Washington D.C. Alternatively, we can join hands with private industry and try to recapture the restless spirit of American workers on the move.
I’d rather take the path with fewer bureaucrats. To me, that is how we will make rural America truly great again.
Bryan Dean Wright is a former CIA ops officer and member of the Democratic Party. He contributes on issues of politics, national security, and the economy. Follow him on Twitter @BryanDeanWright.