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Identifying Our Most Pressing Challenges

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
When you think about your life in rural Minnesota, what would you say are the most challenging issues your community faces? What would make your life better?

Of course, your answers are going to depend on whether you have a young family in need of a daycare, a business that desperately needs new workers, someone looking to buy a home, a business owner who sees his community shrinking, or a public official worried about crumbling infrastructure.

School superintendents worry about falling enrollment and the declining state funding that results. Businesses, educators, and families all are frustrated by the lack of internet broadband connections. Suppose you are a senior citizen who seeks an assisted living facility for yourself or a spouse. Is there one in your community?

Newspaper publishers see fewer advertisers and subscribers.

We all worry about the future of our communities’ sustainability. We look to what our local elected leaders can do to solve these problems. While their efforts are essential and in proactive communities define the difference between moving forward and falling behind, their toolbox is limited.

We look to our state and federal governments to fill that toolbox with the tools to energize our efforts. Yet, we all know the maddening pace, fraught with partisan bickering, at which state legislatures and the federal government move to meet our needs.

One way to facilitate their work is by providing fact-based research on the challenges our communities face. It provides elected officials with the knowledge they need to shape their legislation. That knowledge also helps overcome the partisan divides that can frustrate the work that must be done.

In Minnesota, the Center for Rural Policy & Research is the source that elected leaders are increasingly turning to for information about the needs of rural communities.

Each year, the Center conducts a statewide thought leader survey seeking input from legislators, business and industry, educators, local government elected officials, and from newspaper publishers and editors. It asks that they rate each of the challenges as  “urgent,” “important but not urgent,” or “not important.”

It uses the responses to then conduct research on the most urgent issues identified in the survey. When complete, that research informs members of the state Legislature, members of our congressional delegation, and the public about the roots of the challenges and their impact on our communities.

For full disclosure, we currently serve as research chair on the Center’s board. Its members are appointed by the governor and have members from both the state Senate (Republican) and House (Democrat).

In our most recent thought leaders survey, the most urgent challenge brought up by respondents was finding child care solutions. Shortages of child care spaces for families keep potential employees out of the workforce and cause families to move from smaller communities to larger ones.

Respondents supported the Center looking into where the problems are most pressing, what communities are doing to successfully address them, and what lessons can be learned from those efforts.

Second, the respondents said mental health issues and drug problems were a problem that urgently needed solutions. There is a close tie between mental health and the use of illegal narcotics. Is treatment available to help those suffering from these challenges in rural Minnesota? Did the COVID-19 pandemic deepen the problems?

Affordable housing in rural Minnesota is a major challenge for the growth of our communities. We face a severe housing shortage, and homes’ cost can be too high for workers who might take jobs in our towns.

“What can we learn from successful housing projects, strategies, solutions in rural communities around the state and nation that we can turn into successful policy?” the Center’s survey asked. The respondents ranked this challenge third.

Next, respondents said that the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic on K-12 education with its heavy reliance in some districts on distance learning must be looked into. “What lasting impact did this have on K-12 schools, including on enrollment, and how does that differ around the state? What impact does that or could that have on policy issues like funding or curriculum?” the survey asked.

Respondents also wanted the Center to look into these challenges:

- How does the changing policy regarding local water and wastewater systems affect rural communities, and what do current trends mean for future policies?

- What does access to maternal and infant healthcare look like in rural counties? Is there a link between that care and where young families choose to live?

- During the pandemic, how did our rural long-term care facilities fare? Are there policy changes that need to be considered to better aid them in facing a future pandemic?

- We know the pandemic was a considerable challenge for many rural businesses. “What has helped many rural businesses adapt and grow during the pandemic while others did not? Can these practices be measured, and how can they be shared to benefit all businesses?” the survey asked.

- Among the most challenged agencies during the pandemic in our rural communities were our public health services. What did COVID-19 reveal about the strengths and weaknesses of our public health agencies? And, what improvements could be made?

Many other topics were addressed as well from energy costs to diversity training in local government, to the share of property taxes paid by ag land, and the tie between arts and culture and the level of innovation and entrepreneurship.

We see many of the challenges we faced linked to one central problem – rural population loss. We strongly believe there is a lack of focus on this challenge at the state Legislature. Addressing it will solve many of the challenges we face.

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