Do Rural Outdoor Recreation Counties Really Reduce Poverty?

(Because sometimes it seems like they just move it down the road.)

For the past five years, I have regularly covered trends and issues in rural counties dependent on outdoor recreation as an economic engine. I also live in a rural outdoor recreation county (Transylvania County, North Carolina), where the visiting mountain bikers, waterfall watchers, and various other nature enthusiasts help to keep our local economy humming. Like other rural counties of this sort, service jobs are plentiful, unemployment is low, and wages tend to be higher than in other nearby counties more dependent on agriculture and forestry.

Triple Falls. Dupont State Recreational Forest. Transylvania County, North Carolina. (Photo by yours truly.)

But not everything is perfect in rural outdoor recreation meccas. The plentiful service sector jobs slow way down in the off-season, for instance. And finding any housing, let alone affordable housing, can be virtually impossible.

These issues are covered thoroughly in an updated dataset delivered by Sarah Melotte for the Daily Yonder, “Counties with Recreation-Based Economies Show Biggest Recovery from Long-Term Poverty – But some of the improvement may come from lower-income residents leaving to avoid a higher cost of living.” Nice work, Sarah.

As any reporter worth their salt knows, if you want to talk rural outdoor recreation economy backed by well-informed research and data, you gotta call the fine people at Headwaters Economics. They’re the go-to source on these issues, painting a more nuanced picture of rural economic realities.

In this case, Headwaters’ Megan Lawson said that low poverty rates in rural outdoor recreation counties could be because poor people move out. “In those recreation counties, we see displacement,” Lawson, Ph.D., said. “People [move] farther and farther downstream as housing prices and cost of living increases. . . . We see a lot more inequality even within those communities. And so on average it looks like median household income is doing really well – there’s a lot of prosperity, rising wages, and that’s all great. But … we have to be aware of the distribution and what’s happening for those folks earning the lowest income in those communities.”

On the other hand, rural outdoor recreation counties do have significant advantages. The rural counties with persistent poverty tend to be mining, farming, and timber counties that can face deep economic depression when the commodities they produce decline in price or production. And many of these counties have experienced steady population losses in the last decades as commodity production changes through technology or supply limits.

This all adds up to a mixed bag for those of us thinking about how to build more thriving rural economies. There is no silver bullet solution to be had, unfortunately. But what does seem clear is that a goal should be diversifying rural economies with elements of productive industry, tourism and recreation, services, and government jobs when possible. A potential bright spot for the rural future could include more jobs in manufacturing, especially if “on-shoring” of domestic production of clean energy components, batteries, and machines occurs. That’s a big if, of course, but one that could bring a lot of potential jobs and income to rural America in the coming decades. We shall see.

Rural Reading List

This week’s Keep It Rural reading list is heavy on agriculture. And includes a great essay from Grace Olmstead. Check it out:

Commentary: Stand Together to Defend Debt Relief for Black Farmers

This Jim Goodman commentary is not to be missed. I 100% agree. And props to Jim for being a special kind of Wisconsin awesome.

New Bill Wants to Ban Mergers in Ag and Food Sectors

I got to get myself a byline in the Daily Yonder this week, featuring people who want to break up Big Ag. Reminder — some legislators do actually seem to be working hard for rural America, even if those same legislators hail from the big city.

Why Rural America Matters

Grace Olmstead’s essay is an informative ode to the Idaho of her youth.

How a Rural Victory Over Pig Poop Struck a Blow Against Polluters Everywhere

This Los Angeles Times report features nonfiction book “Wastelands,” which follows “the story of an indefatigable legal team, Wallace & Graham, and its endeavor to seek justice for the plaintiffs who had, for nearly 50 years, endured the unpredictable tyranny of the pork industry’s byproduct,” in Eastern North Carolina.

One More Thing: Ag and Anti-Monopoly Advocates Grade the Executive Branch

Hot off the presses (meaning this morning), Farm Action and Open Markets Institute released a report card titled “A Midterm Review of the Biden Administration’s Commitment to Food System Competition.” The report card examines the performance of the Department of Justice, USDA, and Federal Trade Commission during the last eighteen months of the Biden Administration.

An impressive list of speakers attended the report release, including folks from the Association of American Indian Farmers, the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, Rural Coalition, Compañeras Campesinas, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, and the Western Organization of Resource Councils, among many others.

Their final grade: D+

A D+ USDA? Ouch. Let’s get it together over there in Secretary Vilsack’s office. Happy Tuesday, Keep It Rural readers. And props to the rural voters in South Carolina and Nevada out there practicing a bit of democracy in their primaries today.

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