2017-05-20 / Viewpoints

Rural youth disconnected

BY KENNY SHOLES

(Kenny Sholes is a recent graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with a special interest in finding policy solutions to the challenges in Appalachia.)

You’ve carried several stories recently on the outmigration of young people from rural Pennsylvania.

A recent Social Science Research Council Measure of America study finds that high numbers of rural youth between the ages of 16 and 24 are “disconnected” – neither employed nor enrolled in school.

And they’re disconnected in other ways. Many profess a desire to get out of town the first chance they have.

These findings are concerning. Disconnected youth have higher rates of depression, drug abuse and suicide.

If this problem is not adequately addressed, Pennsylvania’s rural communities will continue to lag behind the rest of the country in significant measures, including health, education and economic independence.

For decades, there has been discussion on the problems plaguing Appalachia, but far less discussion on addressing them through aggressive public policies at the local, state and federal levels.

Through a comprehensive effort that better links education, infrastructure investment and broadband connectivity, we can create the environments necessary to reconnect our youth.

What complicates these solutions is the large amounts of financing needed. This will be a long and difficult process. However, the time is ripe for local, state and federal policymakers to pursue bold actions.

Education is the centerpiece. Our rural communities have experienced significant school consolidations, teacher shortages and lowered graduation rates over the last few decades. To combat these challenges, incentives should be developed to allow rural schools to secure the services of high-quality teachers.

Also, rural school boards need to be better tied in with the local business and industrial communities, as well as economic development offices. As you have reported, four-year college degrees are not the only route toward lifelong economic success. But remaining in rural communities without specific and relevant workforce skills can significantly limit employment opportunities. Career and technical education (CTE) programs should be available in all rural schools, with offerings and certifications tailored to local employment opportunities.

Let’s also be honest about this. Many rural communities can’t provide the type of amenities and experiences that many people in their early 20s prioritize.

But, as people mature and begin to build families, priorities change. Creating the environment necessary – good schools, adequate housing, meaningful work, etc. – for these experienced professionals to return home is critical.

A full-range marketing effort that reaches out to those who have left rural Pennsylvania will be needed. In addition to outreach, local and state policymakers can support this through financial and tax incentives, such as college loan repayment guarantees and – where allowed by law -- lowered taxes.

Finally, interconnectivity through broadband internet is essential. There have been successes made in certain Appalachian regions where establishment of broadband was the foundation of a broader strategy.

Rural Pennsylvania has many positive things going for it, appealing to both employers and families. Lower real estate prices and costs of living are among the attractants. Many industries are recognizing that rural areas are the best seeing for “back office” operations. These are services that can be completed from almost anywhere, given adequate physical and interconnective infrastructure.

The high rates of youth disconnection should serve as a warning. If they’re not addressed, rural Pennsylvania populations will continue to fall behind other regions on issues related to health, education and economic development.

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