Rural Alabama

If Alabamians think rural life consists of a simple existence in a pastoral setting near a small town, they havenít been paying attention for the past 50 years. Rural Alabama has always been more complex than that scenario. The same forces transforming the rest of society are at play in rural areas as welló rapid technological change, global business strategies, shifts in occupational demand, and access to working capital are examples. The economic development strategies for rural areas have to be as sophisticated and aggressive as those for metro areas in order to bring enhanced prosperity to the more sparsely populated parts of the state.

Alabama has 46 of 67 counties in which more than 50 percent of the people live in a rural area. But rural does not mean isolated. Some of Alabamaís rural counties (St. Clair, Blount, Limestone, Elmore, Baldwin) are actually part of a federally-defined metropolitan area. Most rural counties contain a small town that is an economic anchor for the local area. Many rural counties have good roads and highways that have reduced the cultural and economic isolation of the past.

Rural also does not necessarily mean agricultural. Farming accounts for 3.3 percent of the total personal income in Alabamaís rural counties, from a high of 14.1 percent in Crenshaw County to a low of 0.2 percent in Fayette County. The importance of farming has been declining for decades in rural Alabama; other forces are driving rural growth. Some rural counties that are part of or near growing metropolitan areas have benefited economically from the metro areaís growth. Workers in central business districts donít always want to live in the city where they work. Some seek the scenic attractions of rural areas within commuting distance of their jobs. Commercial and real estate development, not agricultural activity, accompany population growth in outlying areas.

Although some rural Alabama areas saw prosperity during the decade of the 1990s, many did not. Many did not have a sufficient pool of workforce skills to attract high wage jobs. Although rural Alabamians have made progress in improving their educational status during the decade, quality jobs requiring college-educated workers remain more a dream than a reality in much of rural Alabama. Not all industries require advanced educational credentials. But some rural counties do not have infrastructure in place to support new-economy-style industries. For example, rural counties need hospitality services in order to support a vigorous tourism industry, or sufficient technology and transportation infrastructure to attract high wage manufacturing jobs. In some rural areas the population has been aging out of the civilian labor force, while younger workers have moved away.

These problems are not unique to rural Alabama. They are echoed in the rural portions of every state in the union. Leaders of rural areas everywhere voice the same concerns:

  1. The lack of telecommunications infrastructure and the high cost of local service

  2. Few residents with skills in high technology

  3. A lack of start-up business capital

  4. An unproductive conflict between older, conservative political views and newer, more progressive ones

  5. Lack of cooperation among governmental bodies

  6. Lack of legislative support for rural initiatives

Future projections for prosperity in rural areas offer little hope for improvement unless these kinds of concerns are addressed effectively.

Mark Drabenstott, vice president and director of the Center for the Study of Rural America at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City has said that Americans must change the way they view rural communities and these communities in turn must change the way they see themselves. Communities and legislators must rethink rural state and local development policies. He identified four important components of a successful rural policy:

  1. Development of a broadband communications infrastructure

  2. Facilitation of rural entrepreneurship

  3. Conversion from commodity-based to product-based agriculture, and

  4. Marketing of green space for tourism and residential development.

To follow any of these paths, however, economic leaders should be aware of potential dangers and difficulties.

Creating recreational opportunities and permanent residential communities for those seeking a scenic environment is certainly within the scope and range of many rural Alabama locales. Still, there is some risk in the strategy of recruiting retirees. Rural areas need to be able to provide high quality, accessible health care for a permanent population that moves quickly from active retiree to assisted living status. Rural areas that do not have an excellent health care infrastructure with a working age population trained for and interested in health maintenance occupations should be wary of instituting a vigorous recruitment of senior citizens.

Tourism can also be a two-edged sword. Tourism employment can be very seasonal, and the occupations required to support tourism include a large number of low-wage, low-skill jobs with little or no upward mobility, for example, cashier, housekeeper, counter clerk, short order cook, busboy, janitor, or groundskeeper. Jobs that demand persons with no more than a terminal high school education and some on-the-job training will not raise the average per capita personal income for counties relying primarily on these occupational groups. On the other hand, many communities in Alabama have embraced tourism as a way to restart economic growth. If a regionís assets include a pleasant climate, beautiful scenery, a civilian labor force without advanced technological skills, and properties that are worth visiting, then tourism as part of a development plan makes sense.

Rural areas in every state, including Alabama, have found various strategies that work to revitalize a lackadaisical economy. One is a cooperative arrangement with a local university. When local rural leaders and university leaders team up, the partnership can be a catalyst for economic growth. Universities can be instrumental in bringing applications of new technologies; they can encourage civic involvement; and they can help close the gap between available or potential jobs and worker skills. Every university in Alabama has outreach programs and a great many positive things are now occurring between higher education and rural Alabama. But more is possible.

Every rural region of Alabama has strengths. We are rightly proud of our natural resources, fertile soil, and navigable waterways. But we should not minimize less obvious strengths such as collaborative initiatives among governmental agencies, entrepreneur-supportive education programs, residents with a penchant for innovative thinking, or well-coordinated efforts to attract additional capital. A mindset that dwells on the negatives can overlook the positives. Rural Alabama communities that understand the economic and social forces at work in their areas can use that understanding to develop appropriate development strategies. Just as rural doesnít have to mean isolated or agricultural, rural also doesnít have to mean poor.

Annette Jones Watters

Sources:
The Regional Economy of Upstate
New York: Summer Supplement, Buffalo Branch, Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Summer 2001.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Regional Economic Information System, 2001.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1990 and 2000 Censuses of Population.