It’s time to think differently about investing in rural America and the way we approach health and equity across its diverse communities. New research and resources show the critical connection between health, rural community and economic development.
Thursday, November 21, was National Rural Health Day. You might expect the paragraphs that follow to be about hospital closures or opioids, struggling dairy farmers and falling life expectancy among rural women. These phenomena are true, so we could do just that. However, we want to challenge conventional wisdom and prompt fresh thinking about rural America, the drivers of health, and the role of community and economic development in both. From what we are learning, this broader lens is central to realizing health equity and a better rural futures.
In our predominantly urban nation, the words “rural America” often conjure images of farm country, small towns and white people living in places that once boomed and have since busted. But the real rural America is far more diverse and complex. Dr. Veronica Womack, a political scientist, advocate for black farmers, and RWJF Interdisciplinary Research Leader, whose work has helped bring new research and investment to her rural region, is case-in-point. Womack grew up in Greenville, Alabama—population 8,000—which is part of the “Black Belt,” a largely rural region in the coastal low-land south where black folks outnumber white folks. Economic opportunity is hard to come by—and health suffers as a result—in this region where poverty, racist policies and discrimination along with systemic disinvestment persist.
All the same, Dr. Womak grew up with the idea that you give of what you have, to help those around you. No matter if what you have is not much. In Dr. Womak’s words: “If you’re not willing to share it and work for the betterment of the community, then you know, why even have it?” Womak’s experience growing up with her single mom, who worked as a nurse and spent her weekends bringing medicine and other care to elders around the community, didn’t jive with how the nation viewed her region and her people. Where others saw deficits, Womak could see assets—people willing to work hard and support each other, strong ties, and innovative ideas to get things done.