The name “Indiana” creates a vivid image in people’s minds.
Rolling farm fields. Basketball goals hanging above garage doors and on barn walls. Covered bridges. Small towns packing up and driving in a caravan to watch the local high school kids play at a cross-county rival.
That’s the side of Indiana most of America knows.
Yet, as the Indiana General Assembly began its crucial 2015 session, rural communities hold a less prominent position — at least statistically — in the Hoosier lifestyle. The population of the state’s rural counties grew by 1.9 percent from 2000 to 2010, while urban counties grew by 9 percent, almost five times faster. In that same period, the number of rural residents living in poverty increased by 44 percent.
Those stark numbers were included in a series of reports released last year by researchers at Purdue University titled “Giving New Life to Rural Indiana.” Agriculture faculty members, Purdue Extension staffers and the school’s agriculture communications department compiled the study.
It noted the 21st-century realities of empty storefronts and the dwindling job base in small towns but also highlighted success stories in several cities and strategies to revitalize the quality of life in rural places.
Nearly 900,000 Hoosiers live in rural counties. As the Purdue series’ introduction put it, “There is a real danger their voices and interests may be lost in an increasingly urban-oriented Indiana.”
Those little communities — cities with populations under 10,000 tucked in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents — can help themselves by finding energetic leaders with a vision for the future. Towns also need commitment from the Statehouse to build and upgrade the non-sexy cornerstone of recovery and infrastructure — roads, sidewalks, trails, water lines and wastewater facilities.
Rural counties cope with not only poverty but also difficulties attracting businesses and development, shortages of volunteers and food for the needy, and limited access to banks, health care, fresh produce and broadband Internet, according to the Purdue Extension series.
The General Assembly could bolster the small-town recovery by providing strong, new funding this year for infrastructure.
Lawmakers committed $400 million in additional funds for long-overdue road improvements, but only half that amount became immediately available. The remaining $200 million was put on hold until the December revenue forecast emerged, and last week Gov. Mike Pence called for those funds to be released as part of the “Major Moves 2020” program, pending a review by the State Budget Committee. More than $800 million has gone toward roads in Pence’s term.
The state of infrastructure in Hoosier towns requires even more funding, Greller said.
No rural town is a lost cause, said Jason Henderson, director of Purdue Extension.
“Every community has an asset to build upon,” he said.
- From 2000 to 2010, the population in Indiana’s urban counties grew by 9 percent, compared with just 1.9 percent in rural counties.
- From 2000 to 2010, the number of rural Indiana residents living in poverty increased 44 percent.
- 42 Indiana counties qualify as rural, with populations under 40,000 and their largest city’s population under 10,000.
- 14 percent of the Hoosier residents (891,906 total) live in rural counties.
Source: Purdue Extension Service