Even at the level of the Federal Reserve, the problems of rural counties, such as our Louisiana parishes, are a mounting concern.
"While the economy is strong overall, we recognize that some communities have yet to feel the full benefits of the ongoing expansion," Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said. "We are conducting research, collaborating with communities and assessing financial regulations so that our nation's current prosperity will benefit small towns and cities alike."
The Fed chairman spoke at a Washington conference on rural affairs, where long-standing issues of substandard housing were discussed.
But on that issue, as on many others, Powell is right to focus on growth and jobs.
In some Louisiana parishes, as in the nation’s counties in rural areas, a lack of opportunity and infrastructure like good roads and broadband internet access is hobbling growth.
Given that President Donald Trump appointed Powell, and the president gained strong support from rural America in his 2016 campaign, the concern might seem to be politically motivated. But the worries for the vast disparities in economic and social progress between the cities and the small towns has been a long-standing issue for many policy leaders.
Powell said unemployment in the poorest rural counties is more than double the national average last year. This while those employed or looking for jobs in their prime working years in rural areas have increasingly lagged during the current expansion.
For its part, the Fed is trying to engage businesses to spur rural economic development and in particular to push internet access in low-income counties.
The Census Bureau recently reported that there are low percentages of penetration of broadband internet in many rural areas, but particularly those in the Mississippi River basin — as in Louisiana’s Mississippi and Red River delta parishes. Some parishes in the greater Baton Rouge area, the southern end of the Mississippi Delta, are home to some of the poorest communities in the country.
Some progress has been made. A $22 million grant announced in November will help get wireless access to 54,000 homes and businesses in north Louisiana.
“If a business wants to move to rural parts of Louisiana, they have to have high-speed internet to compete," Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell told KSLA-TV in Shreveport.
Much more, though, needs to be done.
Ultimately, healthy cities have served as engines of prosperity — and thus magnets for talented young people. But if, as Powell says, the benefits of economic growth are to be more evenly shared, rural development must be part of the national agenda, and nowhere is that more apparent in Louisiana.