Research from UI institute shows quality of life is just as important as jobs in developing struggling rural areas
Monday, October 1, 2018

Iowa’s rural population has been in decline for more than a century, and many areas struggle to remain vital as a result.

Today, only about a third of Iowans are rural residents, and a frequent discussion among policy makers is how to revive the areas where they live and create sustainable communities.

Those discussions often focus on bringing new employers to town that will hire locals and maybe even bring a few new people to the community. But researchers affiliated with a University of Iowa research institute say that while jobs are important, the effort to increase wealth in rural communities has to go beyond big employers and new jobs.

Keith Mueller

“For years, economic development was defined as attracting employers to provide jobs, but research has shown this isn’t sustainable,” says Keith Mueller, professor of health management and policy in the UI College of Public Health and health care portfolio director for the Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI), a national network of researchers headquartered in the College of Public Health. “You can bring in a factory with 1,000 jobs, but that’s not going to help much if you don’t look at the community as a whole and see what it can sustain.

“Building quality of life attracts employees because it creates a place where people want to live, and that attracts employers,” Mueller says.

RUPRI was founded by Congressional mandate in 1990 (among the founders was then-Iowa Senator Tom Harkin) to analyze federal policy impact on education, social services, and health care in rural areas. The institute has a broad network of researchers at universities across the country studying those impacts and looking at ways to revive moribund rural economics. The institute moved to the UI from the University of Missouri in 2013, in part because founding director Charles Fluharty was impressed with the university’s outstanding health care and education programs, particularly their outreach to rural parts of the state.

One of RURPRI’s initiatives is the Comprehensive Rural Wealth Framework, a model developed by institute researchers that presents an outline that communities can use to improve their quality of life, keeping more of their residents and attracting more. The framework lists eight types of wealth that communities should seek to build.

  • Financial wealth
  • Art and culture. A community’s sense of identity represented by works of art, architecture, and places of cultural significance such as monuments. This also include beliefs, traditions, and practices that distinguish and identify groups of people and their values and identity.
  • Physical assets. Buildings, bridges, telecommunications networks and other types of physical infrastructure
  • Human capital. The number of people in a community, their skills, talents, health and level of education of those who can be productive
  • Intellectual capital. Knowledge, innovation, and ideas in a community
  • Political capital. The types of groups and organizations in a community, their influence, power, and goodwill
  • Nature. Water and air quality, natural landscapes, climate
  • Social capital. The network of relationships in a community

All of these factors are interconnected and build on each other, Mueller says. If one strengthens, they all strengthen, and if one weakens, they all weaken. An expert in health care policy, Mueller sees how his area of expertise plays into the larger framework.

“As a health policy researcher, I’m highly conscious of the importance of financial and economic wealth because without that, the health factor becomes much more difficult,” he says. “And good health is important to a person’s economic health, so they strengthen each other.

Mueller says art and culture wealth is one example of how the framework can strengthen rural communities by transforming their community. Small towns need young people if they’re to have a viable future and to do that they must create places to live that appeal to millennials. What appeals to young people is quality of life, Mueller says. They want to live in a place that’s interesting and provides unique experiences, and then find a way to make a living once they’ve moved there. In that way, the economics of rural areas have been flipped, from creating jobs and building a community from the people who work those jobs to building a community and knowing the jobs will follow the people who move there.

RUPRI’s most visible effort in rural wealth creation is in the Appalachian region, where the organization is working with federal agencies and non-profit organizations to develop cultural and heritage tourism along the Bluegrass Heritage Music Trail in Virginia, tourism development in gateway communities to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and rehabilitation of an industrial brownfield site in Pennsylvania into a modern industrial park and business incubator.

“Each of these projects builds on multiple types of existing assets and invests in multiple assets,” says Mueller.

The College of Public Health and the Institute of Public Health Research and Policy are hosting a pair of discussion that looks at rural economies and sustainability:

  • Assessing Rural Futures Using the Comprehensive Wealth Framework will be held Monday, Oct. 8, at 12:30 p.m. in room N120 in the College of Public Health Building.
  • Details of the Rural Health Framework—A Comprehensive Measure of Economic Well-being, will be held Tuesday, Oct. 9, from 9 to 10 a.m. in room C217 in the College of Public Health Building.

Participating in the discussion will be two RUPRI researchers who pioneered the concept, Matt Fannin of Louisiana State University and Thomas G. Johnson of the University of Missouri.