A Tale of Two Rural Places

An interesting new study from the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, entitled “My Advice . . . is Get out of Town,” takes a deep dive look into the development of two counties in rural New England.   The report offers an interesting take on the dynamic relationship between population trends and economic opportunities in rural places.  It profiles two counties, whose identities are made anonymous.  Clay County is a well-located and scenic locale, attracting many retirees and also serving as a destination service center for the surrounding region.  Union County is remote, and relies on a seasonal economy that is highly dependent on resource extraction sectors, such as forestry.

These places show quite different economic dynamics.  Tourism-focused Clay County faces a major challenge with job quality.  Many jobs are available, but they don’t pay very well. Union County has fewer jobs, but these positions—in health care and manufacturing, offer decent pay—especially when compared to the tourism sector.  For those without high quality jobs, working life is precarious and heavily reliant on part-time or seasonal work.  Both places suffer from brain drain, and a relatively lower level of local workforce talent among those remaining.  Retaining workers is a major challenge.  In Union County, the lack of local employment options pushes younger workers to leave.  In Clay County, high housing costs and lower paying jobs are the primary worker retention obstacles.

The experience of these counties suggests some basic economic development directions for rural places.  Effective strategies should include economic diversification, expanded efforts to spawn new locally-owned small businesses, and investments to improve local housing stock.  Efforts to attract new immigrants to the region also make sense—to attract new talent, to bring new families into the community, and to more generally support revitalization.