Across the country, people in rural communities work hard to take care of their families and their neighbors. Yet many of us don’t have the tools and opportunities we need. People in rural communities have limited access to quality healthcare, education, and other essential services. These challenges have been growing over decades as communities struggle to recover from corporate disinvestment and pollution. The lack of broadband and degraded infrastructure pose additional challenges. Wealth inequality and the spread of disinformation affects everyone, but many rural communities are particularly impacted.
The lack of government and philanthropic investment in rural communities has exacerbated the challenges. Only 7% of philanthropy grant dollars go to rural communities, yet 19% of U.S. residents are rural. Too often federal and state governments haven’t provided the tools people need to succeed. Across numerous indicators, rural communities struggle to meet the needs of our residents. For example:
- People in rural communities are 25% more likely to live in poverty.
- 21% of rural adults have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 35% in urban areas.
- Mortality rates in rural communities are 18% higher than in urban ones.
- Smaller cities and rural counties have the nation’s highest rates of jail and prison incarceration.
Rural Democracy Initiative supports rural people working to transform their lives and communities. We invest in permanent civic engagement, issue advocacy, community organizing infrastructure, and sustainable urban-rural coalitions.
Many people don’t understand who lives in rural communities and what we want. 24% of rural residents are people of color, and many are immigrants. Rural voters support ambitious policy and system change. Polling shows non-metro voters support the government ensuring health coverage for all Americans, equal pay for women, and policies prioritizing working people.
While partisan divides are increasing in all parts of the country, many rural voters are swing voters. Between 2012 and 2020, rural voters swung 8%, moving in both directions. That’s more than urban and suburban voters. And these swings decide elections. In 2020, the increase in the Democratic non-metro vote was the margin of victory for electing President Biden in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin. They also determine U.S. House races, state legislatures, and local government.
Rural communities are ready for more, and leaders around the country are engaging their communities to change major policy and political outcomes. Rural Democracy Initiative (RDI) supports over 100 groups, passing policies that make a difference, engaging rural people with compelling communications, and building momentum heading into 2024.
In an editorial, RDI Executive Director Sarah Jaynes discusses the shifts in rural America and calls for more investment in rural civic engagement. Sarah shows how small cities like Wilson, North Carolina benefit from diverse leaders who are building stronger communities. Irene Godínez, who founded Poder NC, demonstrates how immigration and civic engagement lift up rural economies and bring people together.
Building Coalitions Across Geography
Most of the priority issues for rural residents are also important for urban communities, and these policies offer significant opportunities for coalitions across geography. However, it’s important to understand each community's unique context, challenges, and opportunities. We need to talk about policies and politics in ways that resonate with rural working people, and the Winning Jobs Narrative is an important tool for framing our values and messages.
Messaging is not enough, we need solutions created with specific knowledge of the communities and in partnership with the people most directly impacted. For example, working families struggle to find affordable, safe, and stable housing in both rural and urban areas. Yet, the differences in population density, availability of private capital, sewer and water infrastructure, and scale of local government planning resources mean that the solutions differ in rural and urban communities.
Rural communities need rural advocates who will lift up local solutions and truly represent them. Rural areas and small cities are key to state and federal government power. Legislation won’t pass the U.S. Senate without rural support — rural states with 25% of the population control 60% of the Senate. In states like Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, over 40% of voters are in small towns and rural areas. And in many states, gerrymandered districts give rural voters disproportionate power to affect outcomes.
Invest in Rural Leadership
RDI supports rural people working to transform their lives and communities in service of shared prosperity and democracy. We invest in permanent civic engagement, issue advocacy, community organizing infrastructure, and sustainable urban-rural coalitions. In addition to grantmaking, RDI also supports rural leaders and organizations through convening, research, and communications. We’ve seen tremendous gains using this approach — winning elections, passing life-saving policy, and building momentum for the years to come. Yet, rural leaders don’t have the full resources they need. With more resources, groups can expand their infrastructure to engage more people and build power for this year and into the future.
Support rural people working to transform rural America. Make a gift to RDI today!