Revitalizing rural America

By Dan McMillan

Published on January 5, 2016

The Rural Policy Research Institute is forging innovative collaborations at the rural-urban intersection.


illustration of farming and industry scenesThe prevailing narrative about the rural-urban dynamic is well-known: Rural America is on the decline, while urban America is moving ahead. Residents of rural areas are older, poorer, less healthy, and have lower levels of education than those living in urban regions. Population across rural America is decreasing and the rural economy is struggling. On balance, not an especially optimistic outlook for rural regions.

While structural, demographic, economic, and geographic challenges have seemingly stacked the odds against rural regions, leaders of the University of Iowa-based Rural Policy Research Institute (RUPRI) aren’t buying the stereotypes of “urban growth vs. rural decline.”

Instead, they articulate an alternative view of rural and urban regions as vital, complementary sectors, intrinsically bound together, each essential components of a healthy social, cultural, economic, and environmental whole.

Confronting Common Challenges

Chuck Fluharty, RUPRI president and CEO and clinical professor of health management and policy in the UI College of Public Health, is a passionate proponent of this view of rural-urban interdependence. It is a view, he says, that encompasses the enormous potential for beneficial synergies built on models of regional collaboration.

“Throughout the United States and the world today, people are confronting common challenges, such as the need to develop affordable and appropriate energy systems, including renewables, create functional local and regional food systems, mitigate and adapt to climate change, foster vibrant arts and culture, nurture private civic and social entrepreneurship, and do all this with less, but for wiser public investments,” says Fluharty.

“The rural-urban intersection and regional innovation systems are some of our most important opportunities. Many of the challenges facing modern urban centers depend on rural areas for solutions. Rural citizens steward these resources that urban America needs. So, rural-urban interdependency is our common future.”

Iowa is a microcosm of how America is going to have to address this intersection to craft locally appropriate solutions, notes Fluharty.

“The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit is emblematic of these challenges,” he says, referring to the high-profile legal battle pitting the public water utility of Iowa’s capital city against three rural Iowa counties upstream. At issue is the question of who bears the mounting financial cost to produce clean public drinking water when rivers are heavily polluted by agricultural chemicals and other farm run-off. “These types of challenges require effective regional policy responses, and there are jurisdictional, sectoral, and political dynamics which make all this even more difficult. But these must be overcome.”

Building the Evidence Base for Rural America

The pursuit of effective public policy has been the impetus for RUPRI since it was founded 25 years ago. It was the absence of objective, non-governmental information about rural policy impacts that prompted United States Senate Agriculture Committee members Kit Bond of Missouri, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and Tom Harkin of Iowa to establish RUPRI in 1990.

Over the past quarter century, RUPRI has yielded a trove of research, analysis and consultation, engagement, dissemination and outreach, and decision support tools for policymakers. Initiatives cover the full gamut of the rural experience – from health and human services policy to arts and culture, regional innovation and governance, entrepreneurship, poverty, transportation, telecommunications, and wealth creation. (See for more on RUPRI’s areas of work.)

RUPRI has led innovative economic development initiatives seeking to diversify the economy of hard-hit rural areas, such as the coalfields of eastern Kentucky. Its health policy experts are helping rural providers adapt to changes in health care finance and delivery, including telehealth programs. Arts partnerships strengthen rural culture and community. A RUPRI panel is working to improve health and human services delivery models. And by focusing on comparative policy assessments, through collaborations with entities such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, RUPRI brings its rural research and policy innovation expertise to the international arena.

The work taking place within this remarkably diverse portfolio is carried out by a core team based in Iowa and Washington D.C., and a number of joint initiatives and panels comprised of colleagues from universities, policy institutes, and organizations across the United States. Funding is primarily through federal grants from agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.

“The breadth of the RUPRI portfolio across multiple sectors, coupled with its extraordinary analytic and research expertise, makes it an invaluable resource for understanding the experiences of rural populations and the complexity of rural issues,” says Sue Curry, dean of the UI College of Public Health. “This is why so many policymakers rely on RUPRI and it’s why it adds such tremendous value to the University of Iowa and the College of Public Health.”

Valuing Rural Culture

Beyond simply building the evidence base to inform sound public policy, however, Fluharty and RUPRI have staked a commitment to the unique value of rural places and the contribution that rural life and culture makes to America’s national identity. Whether through testimony before Congressional committees, advocating for greater private philanthropic investments in rural America, or presenting research findings and recommendations, the RUPRI leadership team is focused on changing the rural-urban narrative to one that appreciates the intrinsic value of rural America.

“Since our nation’s founding, rural areas and rural people have provided the food, fuel, and fiber for all our citizens,” Fluharty says. “Today, as never before, the health, welfare, and future viability of urban America are directly linked to the wellbeing of rural America.”

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of InSight.