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Counties Where the American Dream is Dead

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

I read a lot of economic and community development related articles and lists each week, and a recently published list by 24/7 Wall St. really caught my eye.  It was titled “Counties Where the American Dream Is Dead.”  Wow!  What a headline!  Here’s the link –

You can read the methodology here, but essentially 24/7 Wall St. looked at four statistics to determine the 50 counties that made this list, including 1) Average income loss per year of childhood residence, 2) Household income per capita, 3) Poverty rate, and 4) Unemployment rate.  This data made it possible for 24/7 to identify counties seemingly in the direst of economic situations where upward mobility is limited.

RDG’s all-star researcher, Nicole Bogdan, dug a little deeper and found, not surprisingly, that nearly three-quarters of the counties on this list have a low population, that is 50,000 people or less. Additionally, almost half do not have a Walmart located within their boundaries.  Why is this relevant?  A long-time Georgia politician once told me that communities with a Walmart have a chance to grow, but those without a Walmart lose sales tax revenue, and it all goes downhill from there…

So, is the American dream dead in these counties? The short answer is “No.”.  That would indicate that there is no hope for improvement. So, what is the solution?

Everything starts and ends with leadership.  There must be local officials and private sector leaders that are willing to do things differently than they have been done in the past.  This is easy to say, but we all know this can be a major stumbling block, especially in rural America where old habits are often cherished.  But, the right champions can provide the jet fuel needed to facilitate new strategies that can lead to economic and community growth.

Second, I go back to the old mantra about the vital importance of regionalism in economic development. While many of these counties may have little to entice new business, they can align their strategies with larger markets in their region. Even serving as a supplier of talent to employers in other counties generates greater tax revenue at home.

Point two segues into a final vital strategy that can have a huge impact. These counties should work with regional partners to identify the greatest talent needs in the area, and then implement aggressive skill focused training and retraining programs beginning as early as high school.  The great news is that these communities do not need to start from ground zero. Talent development strategies that are being executed effectively in markets like Nashville, TN and Charleston, SC can be scaled for any size community.

So, while there are certainly many communities in our country that are dealing with significant challenges, the good news is that there are pathways to greater economic stability.  The American dream is only dead if these communities simply stop trying to improve and fail to embrace new realities.  As economic and community development professionals, it is our collective job to provide a way forward.  I know that for us at RDG, we value our role in helping communities solve these very challenges.

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