"There are 60 million people, almost one in five Americans, living on farms, in hamlets and in small towns across the landscape. For the last quarter century the story of these places has been one of relentless economic decline," claimed the The New York Times in a dour 2018 article packed with statistics about the declining population, economic fortunes, and general mood of small-town America.
This was only one article in a steady drumbeat of depressing pre-pandemic reports on small-town America. Around the same time high-profile commentators urged Americans to simply abandon these "left behind" places. While researchers highlighted the spiking numbers of "deaths of despair" in these areas.
The picture then was almost universally bleak. But perhaps it no longer is. A new report from Small Biz Survival argues that the pandemic-driven population shifts, the ascendancy of remote work, and improvements to essential rural infrastructure such as increased broadband access, have made it possible once again to dream of a resurgence of America's small towns (and the small businesses that call them home).
A coronavirus silver lining?
Urbanites fleeing city cores for roomier and more expensive homes in cheaper and less densely populated locales has been a much-touted trend throughout the pandemic. And while the details of who is going exactly where are much debated, a quick look at sky-high home prices outside major urban areas (and probably a quick scan of what your own friends are doing) is enough to show that this shift is real.
Small Biz Survival likewise confirms this shift of people, talent, and energy away from coastal metropolises, though it cautions "this isn't an explosive exodus from major tech and population centers, but the more subtle diffusion of opportunities to a broader swath of places." But even a "subtle diffusion" is good news for small towns.
Adding to the case for hope is the major re-examination of values, especially around work and community, that's gone on thanks to the pandemic. One side of that coin is employers struggling with the 'Great Resignation' as workers look for better work-life balance and a way of making a living that doesn't destroy their souls. But the flip side for small towns may be newcomers hungry for engagement, community, and a more humane pace of life.
New blood is always good for the vitality of towns. But so is more money, and increased remote work is allowing greater numbers of well-paid professionals to live in quieter places. Couple this influx of resources with a growing suite of tech tools that make it easier to work and set up a business from everywhere, and the result is a sunnier outlook for small-town America.
"The expansion of rural broadband and remote work, coupled with the Internet making it easier and cheaper to start and operate a small business, has made rural and small town businesses more viable and competitive," writes consultancy Small Business Labs, which is one of many organizations that commissioned the report, in their look at the findings.
2022: a hopeful year for small-town America
For those interested in a deeper dive, the complete video report also goes into healthcare, environmental, and leadership trends in small towns. But these two major points above already look like some of the best news rural America has gotten in decades. No one is downplaying the ravages of the coronavirus of course, nor the scale of the remaining challenges faced by rural America. But it's nice to see a hopeful take on its downstream effects of the pandemic and a case for optimism for more rural places in the coming years.
Small Biz Labs concludes by predicting "a positive cycle of greater economic vibrancy in small towns and rural America, leading to more people wanting to move and start businesses in small towns." Its final takeaway is heartening: "the next decade is looking to be very positive for rural America."
Are you convinced by the case for optimism about small towns (and small town businesses)?