This post is not intended to be a criticism of life in rural America. Nor am I pretending to be an expert on the economic fortunes of people living there. But I’ve driven long distances through remote rural areas, and it’s hard to ignore the often obvious economic distress of many who live there.
While much of urban America has grown and prospered since the end of World War II, many of the rural areas have either stagnated or declined. Perhaps the best evidence is the stunning number of young people who have left rural America for the cities.
I once expected the Internet to be an economic equalizer, that would largely put rural America on an equal footing with metropolitan America. Instead, it seems the Internet is not helping rural America. While much of metropolitan America charges forward into Internet-based prosperity, rural America seems to only be falling farther behind. It’s a major component of the infamous economic divide.
How can that be, given that the Internet is no respecter of geographic boundaries?
The Growing Divide Between Rich and Poor Even Extends to Internet Usage
An article on MarketWatch a couple of years ago offered in interesting insight on internet usage differences between rich and poor kids. Rich kids use the Internet to get ahead, and poor kids use it ‘mindlessly’. The article doesn’t specifically deal with rural-vs-metropolitan kids, but much of the economic divide today is based on geography.
The article noted the following, quoting from Robert Putnam, author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis:
“Compared to their poorer counterparts, young people from upper-class backgrounds (and their parents) are more likely to use the Internet for jobs, education, political and social engagement, health and newsgathering, and less for entertainment and recreation…Affluent Americans use the Internet in ways that are mobility-enhancing, whereas poorer, less educated Americans typically use it in ways that are not.”
It’s Only Getting Worse – The Formation of Tech Hubs in the Big Cities
Another interesting article pointing in the same direction – but to an even more extreme degree – appeared last summer on Zero Hedge. Small Town Suburbia Faces Dire Financial Crisis As Companies, Millennials Flee To Big Cities reported that a large number of big-name companies are abandoning leafy suburbs in favor of big-city downtown areas.
Highlighted in the article were companies such as McDonald’s, GE, Aetna and Caterpillar. Each was leaving some suburban community or small city in favor of the downtown areas of the likes of Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and New York City. Presumably this is a trend happening with major companies and in large cities across the country.
It’s already been well documented that manufacturing concerns have pulled out of rural America, in favor of foreign locations. But the movement of large companies back into big-city downtown areas points to something perhaps equally significant. The Zero Hedge article says the reason companies are relocating to big cities is so they can be near tech incubators.
The tech incubator concept seems to be very real, as another factor playing against rural America.
While the Internet boom should have theoretically spread across the country just about equally, the opposite has actually happened. The Internet – and the general tech boom it created – is concentrated in the large metropolitan areas. Now it’s becoming even more concentrated still in big-city downtown areas.
It seems to be an attempt by large companies to move tech operations into big-city downtown areas, which have a large number of young, well-educated, and very tech-literate workers. In other words, the tech industry is concentrating in hubs.
If anything, this is only further isolating the technical class from the rest of America.
Just as Money Goes to Money, So Apparently Tech Goes to Tech
This might be a critical reason why the Internet boom is not helping rural America. Rather than spreading across the country in something of an economically democratic fashion, the tech boom – including the Internet – has mostly festered in the large metropolitan areas. The technological brain centers are increasingly becoming big-city downtown areas, which apparently are beehives for the tech crowd.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the industry has so heavily centered in California for much of its evolution, but more specifically in Silicon Valley.
Concentrations have created greater exposure to tech and the Internet in large metropolitan areas in general. If you work in a tech or Internet related job, not only are you more likely to take advantage of it in your personal life, but you’re also more inclined to extend it to your family. That includes, first and foremost, your children.
Kids in large metropolitan areas, particularly those centered around major tech cities, grow up with the Internet as second nature. Not only do they embrace it more quickly in life, but they do it more thoroughly. Yes, it may involve gaming and entertainment initially. But eventually, and spurred on by their parents and others, they gradually embrace the more productive capabilities of the web.
As young people in large metropolitan areas become more web savvy, it becomes a general trend, even among kids whose parents don’t work in tech. The concentration of web savvy users in large metropolitan areas feeds on itself, increasing the incubator effect.
I Was the Beneficiary of Living in a Large Metro Area for My Own Internet Career
I credit at least part of my entry into blogging and freelance blog writing to the fact that I was living in the Atlanta metropolitan area. As a major tech center – teeming with web savvy residents and workers – it was fertile soil for me. Not that I knew anyone doing exactly what I was doing, but I knew people who were using the web to make money. It’s easier to do that when you’re surrounded by people doing the same thing.
I’d get together with friends for coffee or for lunch, and we’d bounce ideas off each other. We may have all been going in different directions, but the basic strategies are always the same. What’s more, being around others who are web savvy gives you a chance to learn from their mistakes.
Sometimes it was even possible to run into strangers who were either making money on the web, or using the web to enhance their businesses. The people and resources were just closer at hand than I imagine they would be in less populated areas.
That’s what’s happening in the large metropolitan areas, but not in rural America.
Tapping the Internet from Rural America
Rural America has taken it on the chin from different directions. First there was the disappearance of the family farm in favor of the corporate farm. Then there was the disappearance of manufacturing jobs. That was paralleled by the big-box retailers that virtually destroyed small-town downtown areas, and the small businesses they contained. And perhaps the most unkind cut of all, young people have left rural America in droves, seeking opportunity in the cities.
The combination of events has created an extraordinary lack of economic opportunity in much of rural America. There’s an absence of jobs that pay a living wage, and provide benefits. That’s not much to go on if you live in a rural area, and want to improve your circumstances.
Again, I’m hardly an expert on survival in rural America. But it looks like the person who wants to improve his or her lot in life as one of two choices:
- Relocate to a large city where there are plenty of jobs, or
- Build a local business.
Let’s take a look at both possibilities.
Relocate to a Large City
In a large city, you’re in a place where there are plenty of jobs. But there’s also a downside – there’s a lot of competition for those jobs.
If you’re a recent college graduate in a very relevant major, your chances of landing a living wage job are considerably better. The same is true if you have some sort of technical training in an in-demand skill.
But if you don’t, coming from a rural area, you many lack skills needed to compete for urban jobs. But it’s always possible to get a low-paying job to start, then work your way up.
This is a lot harder to do than it once was. Many businesses today have “flattened out”, which is a technical way of saying they don’t offer much of a career path. As well, most jobs today are in the service sector. It’s not just that they’re entry-level jobs, but most don’t lead anywhere.
For example, you may start out as a clerk in a fast food restaurant, and hope to move up to management. But if you notice, there are about 10 clerks for every manager in a typical fast food restaurant. That means you have about a 10% chance of getting promoted.
But there’s one other major obstacle to relocating to urban areas, and that’s the cost of living.
In big urban areas, basic living expenses, like housing, utilities, insurance, and basic services like car repairs can be prohibitive. The burden of these expenses always falls harder on lower paid workers. Then there’s the cost of relocating. It may cost several thousand dollars, if you have the money to make the move at all.
Relocating to an urban area might make sense if you have urban job skills. If you don’t, it may not improve your circumstances.
“Bloom Where You’re Planted” – Build a Local Business
I admit, I have a bias here. This is what I had to do when I was 50 years old and my career melted underneath my feet. I had to start over from scratch, and virtually reinvent myself. And that’s even while I was living in a large metropolitan area.
But I think the rules are the same regardless of geography. You can do the same thing if you live in a rural area, and are unsatisfied with your economic circumstances.
I’ve stated the Internet is not helping rural America. But that doesn’t mean it can’t. It may be the best option for anyone who has been shut out by the economic trends of recent decades, including people living in rural areas. Due to the lack of others doing the same thing, the climb will undoubtedly be more difficult.
But difficult doesn’t mean impossible.
In How to Convert the Internet From a Playground to an Income Source , I laid out some strategies to use the Internet for its best purpose – making money.
The core idea in that article was this:
“Think small. Before you can make a lot of money on the Internet, you first have to prove to yourself that you can make a little. We’re talking small steps here. Try selling a few things on Craigslist or on eBay. Write articles for your favorite blogs and websites. Start your own blog. See what web jobs need to be done, even if it’s a short-term gig. Offer your social media skills, graphic design skills, video creation skills or web building skills and see what comes up…Here’s the point: once you demonstrate to yourself that you can make a little bit of money on the Internet, it isn’t such a scary place anymore.”
Deciding What Business to Launch
This is probably the first, hardest step in using the Internet to make money. But usually, it’s best to start with what you already know. If you have any kind of skills at all, you may be able sell them on the web. Think of what you do, or can do, and how you might be able to monetize it with the web. Don’t dismiss this step lightly. Find other people with similar skills, who are selling them on the web – then follow their lead.
For example, if you have administrative skills, you may be able to offer your services as a virtual assistant. If you can make handcrafts, look into opening an Etsy store. Or look to sell locally produced goods, those unique to your area, on eBay.
Don’t have any skills to sell on the web? Get to know YouTube.
The basic idea is to start small. Get over any notion of taking the Internet by storm, it will more likely be a gradual process. If you can start out making a few dollars a month, you can grow over time until it becomes a solid part-time income. Given more time and effort, it can become a full-time income. Perhaps the most basic business advantage of the web is that it expands your market from your local area to the entire world.
You can combine your fledgling Internet business with any kind of job you can get locally. Or if you’re one of the few who still has a family farm, use your Internet business as part of a “farming+” strategy.
Still another strategy is to grow it to a point where it enables you to more easily afford to relocate to an area where there are more jobs.
Final Thoughts on the Internet is Not Helping Rural America
The Internet is changing the lives of millions of people. It’s unfortunate that’s been less common in rural America. But it doesn’t have to be in your own world. If you’re living in an area where there isn’t much opportunity to improve your lot in life, the Internet may still serve its purpose of being an economic equalizer.
In today’s complicated economy, it’s more important than ever to think in unconventional terms. The Internet gives us all the ability to do exactly that. But you have to jump in and make it happen. Success won’t come immediately, but it can, if you keep working at it and studying the examples of others.
If you’re living in an area with little economic opportunity, like much of rural America, have you tried making money on the Internet?