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Opinion: What does it mean to be rural in Missouri in 2020?

If we totaled up all rural Missourians, we would comprise more than 2 million people — more than in one 3 Missourians —37 percent. That is twice the population of St. Louis County, nearly 7 times the population of St. Louis City, and more than 4 times the population of Kansas City.

That’s a lot, isn’t it?

What does it mean to live in Rural Missouri in 2020?

State Rep. Louis Riggs

First, it means that the population of your county is likely to drop this year, and next year and every year after that for the rest of your life. Nearly half of all Missouri counties reached peak population more than 100 years ago and have been in decline ever since.

Second, it means that most of your best and brightest young people are going to leave as teenagers and will probably never come back; of those who do, many will not return until they are nearing or at retirement age, which means that they raised their families somewhere else. For the net result of this ‘brain drain’ dynamic, see the paragraph above.  

Third, it means that half of you — 1 million — do not have access to broadband internet. As a result of that sad state of affairs, you are not yet part of the 21st-century economy. You cannot educate your students in place because they cannot upload their homework from their homes; your elderly cannot access state of the art telehealth services because they do not have the bandwidth and are forced to travel for hours in all types of weather to keep their doctor’s appointments, incurring transportation costs on top of medical costs; your Millenials and Generation Z residents who are still left cannot make a home business work because they do not have enough bandwidth to maintain a functional website online; and last, and certainly not least, your farmers cannot maximize the technological advances that are now standard issue on new equipment that they are using in their fields — and they cannot access the veterinarian records on sick or injured livestock because they do not have access to high-speed internet.

Fourth, it means that you are much more likely to experience poverty than your big-city peers. In Missouri, 25 percent of rural counties have poverty rates in excess of 20 percent of the population. The income disparity between rural residents and big-city peers increased significantly over the last decade. The only significant population growth in rural counties is in the population aged 65 and above (see paragraph “First” above for what that means for your future).  Since the Great Recession, unemployment rates in rural counties have been higher than in urban areas. Some rural counties have unemployment rates twice as high as that of St. Louis County.  

Fifth, it means that you have half as many college graduates in your midst as urban counties and have nearly twice as many individuals walking around who never finished high school. It also means that your public school students are going to receive about half of the funding that your urban peers will get.   

Sixth, it means that you can expect to live a shorter life than your urban peers since you are more likely to die of heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pneumonia and influenza, kidney disease, suicide, and even car accidents than those who live in urban areas. Those rates are a reflection of the critical lack of healthcare resources in rural counties, more than one-third of which have zero hospital beds.  

Seventh, it also means that the damage caused by major disasters like the Flood of 2019 will be worse because your levees are far more likely to break than urban levees because they are not financed from billion dollar tax bases. To add insult to injury, the repairs in rural areas will not be completed as quickly because you have fewer dislocated individuals — as if the 1.2 million acres of some of the most fertile bottom ground in the world that was underwater for most of the last year is not a major resource. At the rate repairs are going, broken levees that remain unrepaired will flood again in 2020 so you have a good chance of reliving this experience all over again this coming year.    

Rural Missourians talk a lot about another word that starts with R—Resilience. While the numbers look bleak, we are looking forward. You will see more of us on average in church on Sunday, more of us helping our neighbors when there has been a death or major illness in the family, and more of us giving generously per person to our non-profit agencies — of which there are far fewer than in urban areas. While the ‘Folks on the Coasts’ belittle us for clinging to our God, guns, and religion, portray us as brain-dead, inbred rednecks, disparage our small-town values as base ignorance and shower us with contempt on television, in movies and on their daily ‘news’ broadcasts, we continue to go to work each day, put our shoulders to the wheel to provide our children with the best lifestyle we can afford and thank the Good Lord for the blessings that He has provided us.  

As we like to say in Northeast Missouri, “There is intelligent life north of I-70.”  There is intelligent life south of I-70, too. While we remain resilient, we are also tired — tired of being demonized, tired of being marginalized and tired of being ignored. We are tired of being left behind in the 21st-century economy, and we are tired of being treated as an after-thought.

Speaking as a 7th generation Northeast Missourian, it would be a win-win for all parties concerned if rural residents received a bit more attention as well consideration from those who make decisions at the highest levels across business, industry, and government. Our farmers are being asked to produce enough crops and livestock to feed more people by the year 2050 than have existed over the last five thousand years. Like it or not, agriculture is the leading industry in our state and accounts for nearly $100 billion in economic activity. We cannot feed ourselves and the rest of the planet using crumbling roads, dangerous bridges, and agricultural equipment that cannot be used properly because there is not enough bandwidth to use the GPS systems. 

The way forward is clear: Rural Missourians get the short end of the stick when it is time to allocate resources statewide. It is past time to right those historic wrongs, and the best way to move the process forward is by investing in rural Missouri through the expansion of broadband internet. We have been fighting with one hand tied behind our backs for the last 20 years in rural Missouri. The State of Missouri allocated $5 million to expand rural broadband access in 2019 — about enough to hard-wire a town of 5000 when 1 million of us do without this necessity that urban populations have enjoyed for decades already. We are considering adding $10 million in 2020. Missouri is 41st in the nation in broadband access and 49th in speed (Montana is 50th, in case you are wondering, so we are not dead last in that category).

We have been nice, and we have been quiet. We will continue to be nice, but we can no longer afford to be quiet.