Identifying Policies That Advance Racial & Economic Justice in Rural Places

Assessing policies’ potential impact
Racial & Economic Justice in Rural Places

By Kimberly Libman

ChangeLab Solutions has a long track record of working with rural communities. Given the unique diversity and strengths of each rural community, policy solutions need to be tailored to the community conditions and lived experiences of people in those communities. Our most recent project that focuses on rural communities, Toward Better Rural Futures, aims to foster greater collaboration and alignment across local, regional, and state levels of government, equipping leaders with the tools and knowledge to fundamentally shift power, opportunity, and resources in order to create healthy rural places where everyone can thrive. At the outset of this project, we conducted a comprehensive policy scan designed to identify state and local policies that can advance racial equity and equitable economic development in rural communities of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) that are experiencing persistent poverty. Recognizing that increasing meaningful participation in decision making for BIPOC in rural places and decreasing place, race, and class divides are essential to achieving rural prosperity for all, we designed our policy assessment to identify which policies have the highest potential to drive these impacts. This blog post discusses how we chose to assess policies based on the magnitude of their potential impact on the people and places at the heart of Toward Better Rural Futures.

Understanding BIPOC Rural Geographies

The Center on Rural Innovation’s (CORI) work on rural demographics has helped ChangeLab and our partners ground our policy scan in the social and geographic details that describe rural communities. CORI’s Rural Aperture Project presents a series of data stories aimed at shifting the national conversation about racial and economic justice in rural places. Their project is rooted in the idea that “having a clear picture of rural demographics matters because demographic data has a strong impact on how racial equity programs and policies are designed and implemented.” Their analysis shows that unlike in urban and suburban BIPOC communities where racial and ethnic diversity exists to the degree that no one group makes up a majority, racial and ethnic groups in rural communities are highly segregated at local and regional scales. This segregation is a significant barrier to building and leveraging solidarity in political movements and advocacy. Although residents of rural places are stereotyped as white and working-class, CORI’s work highlights the size of the BIPOC population in the rural United States. In 2020, nearly 14 million rural people identified as Black; Hispanic or Latino; Native; Asian; or multiracial. Yet rural BIPOC people are 21 times more likely than BIPOC people living in metro areas to live in a county that is predominantly white. This reality contributes to the invisibility of rural BIPOC communities in national and local conversations about racial equity and policy.

CORI cautions that using diversity benchmarks to target funding can reinforce racial and economic inequities if these targets are based on national demographics and do not consider historic and regional trends. For example, because Black people in the United States are disproportionately imprisoned and because they are incarcerated in rural jails and prisons, outside of the rural South, where Black rural communities have historic roots, incarcerated people constitute 25% of the rural Black population — and nearly 40% of the rural Black population in the Northeast. Without taking this context into account, funding aimed at alleviating rural racial and economic inequities could end up exacerbating the injustices it is meant to improve — for example, by subsidizing places that are not racially diverse but have a high prison population. Ensuring that these funds are used appropriately is critical when we also consider that 80% of rural counties with a BIPOC majority are persistent-poverty counties.

Identifying, designing, and evaluating policies to advance racial and economic justice in rural places requires an understanding of local conditions, assets, and priorities. In Measure Up: Principles for Measuring Rural and Native Nation Development Progress, the Aspen Institute Community Strategies Group cautions that increased investment in rural equity “won’t have the desired impact without a fundamental reassessment of how we measure rural development and a redesign of the funding pipeline itself.” They offer principles for measuring rural development progress that consider the range of capacities and conditions in places that have historically experienced discrimination. One of these principles is the need to use relative rather than absolute measures of success for rural economic development, encompassed in their statement that “the drive for ‘large numbers as impact’ ignores real impact.”

New Ways to Assess Policies’ Intersectional Impact

The preceding insights about BIPOC rural communities informed how we defined and measured potential impact and what kinds of evidence we used in the policy scan process for the Toward Better Rural Futures project. The policy scan aimed to identify state and local policies that can advance racial equity and equitable economic development in BIPOC rural communities experiencing persistent poverty. Our policy scan had three phases: First, we conducted a literature review and interviews with state and local stakeholders to identify policies with the potential to improve racial equity and equitable economic development in rural places. The second phase was an assessment of these policies to understand which policies have the greatest potential to improve rural equity. The assessment included several types of policy analysis: feasibility, impact, inclusion of equitable policy elements, and probability of state-level preemption. In the third phase, we re-engaged with stakeholders to share what we had learned and gather feedback about which policies to prioritize in the next stages of our work.

For the assessment phase of the policy scan process, we developed a suite of equity and impact measures tailored to reflect the Thrive Rural Framework. The framework is a tool to guide action toward rural prosperity; it names that historic and ongoing discrimination based on place, race, and class is the foundation of rural inequity and needs to be addressed at local and systems levels. Reflecting this framework, our policy scan assessed policies for their potential impacts on rural benefit, racial equity, and equitable economic development, among other factors.

Historically, public health and public policy practitioners rely on evidence-based research and evaluation studies to inform decision making about priorities, policy design, and funding. Yet researchers, advocates, decision makers, and funders increasingly recognize that evidence-based research often lacks cultural relevance and grounding in the lived experiences of structurally disadvantaged groups like BIPOC communities, communities experiencing persistent poverty, and rural communities. As an alternative, our policy scan sought to include evidence in our assessment from sources that include rural and BIPOC experiences and perspectives — for example, grey literature, local journalism, case studies, and evaluations.

The assessment included a measure of a policy’s potential magnitude of impact on rural inequality as reflected in the Thrive Rural framework. In a conventional health impact assessment, magnitude of impact is a measure that assesses how widely the effects of a policy change spread within a population or place. Our magnitude of impact measure addresses the question “To what extent will the policy or practice's effects reach BIPOC rural communities experiencing persistent poverty?” We rated policies on a five-point scale from “very high” to “not at all,” based on whether there was evidence that a policy would reach communities facing multiple dimensions of oppression experienced by rural BIPOC people in persistent-poverty counties. A traditional approach would give the highest ratings to policies that would affect the greatest number of people. Our targeted and layered approach defined impact in a way that recognizes the fundamental intersectionality of multiple dimensions of discrimination and exclusion. By aligning our strategy with the Thrive Rural framework, we omitted other dimensions of oppression — such as gender, disability, and sexual identity. The exclusion of these categories is a limitation of our research.

Policies with High Potential to Address Inequities

Our magnitude of impact measure highlighted several policies that hold high potential to address multiple dimensions of oppression for BIPOC rural communities — for example, funding for Native arts programs; Native tourism alliances; targeted and local hiring; agricultural workers’ rights; funding and support for small water systems; broadband expansion; and reparations. Some of these policies — like Native arts programs or funding for small-scale water systems — could improve conditions for a small number of people and still make significant contributions to advancing rural equity because in the context of the historical harm that BIPOC rural communities have been experiencing, such targeted improvements help level unjust disparities. And some of these policies, like broadband expansion, are designed to benefit a specific group yet would also help all people thrive.

Here are some examples of policies that have been successfully enacted in jurisdictions at state and local levels:

  • South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance. The South Dakota Native Tourism Alliance is a network of 60 representatives from the nine federally recognized tribal nations in South Dakota, industry leaders, and local, state, and federal partners, who are all working together to develop Native American tourism as a catalyst for economic growth. Their development and management plan includes steps for implementation.
  • Reparations in Asheville, North Carolina. On July 14, 2020, Asheville’s city council passed a resolution supporting community reparations for Black Asheville. The resolution calls for the city manager to “establish a process within the next year to develop short, medium and long term recommendations to specifically address the creation of generational wealth and to boost economic mobility and opportunity in the black community.”
  • Farmworker protections in multiple states. In 2021, the state of Colorado enacted a law providing farmworkers with a suite of labor protections. These rights include a minimum wage of $12.32 per hour, overtime pay for work exceeding 12 hours a day or 40 hours a week, organizing rights, and enhanced safety protections during public health emergencies. New York State and Washington State also recently passed wage and labor protection laws for agricultural workers.

Involving Rural BIPOC Communities in Decision Making

Our current historical moment presents an opportunity to advance racial and economic equity in rural places. The Biden administration’s focus on equity and federal funding available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the American Rescue Plan Act are resources that state and local leaders can leverage. Simultaneously, increased awareness of structural racism, impacts of climate change, and the growing wealth gap exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic are forcing many to reconsider the kind of democracy we need. Many rural communities are at the forefront in addressing these issues. Especially when we think about impact in a way that recognizes the fundamental intersectionality between multiple dimensions of discrimination, their work offers new narratives and possibility models for building broader, more inclusive movements for change.

Identifying policies with potential to advance racial and economic justice in rural places is just one element of creating meaningful change. Due to the many historical, regional, and cultural differences among BIPOC rural communities, community members and leaders need to be the ones who identify priorities for action. The details of how policy is framed, discussed, designed, and implemented will influence which ideas become law and whether they have a measurable effect on prosperity for all or unintentionally exacerbate existing injustices. With these realities in mind, ChangeLab Solutions and our partners are releasing a curated set of resources that highlight some of the strategies and practices with the greatest potential to improve conditions in ways that advance opportunity, health, and equity in rural communities. By getting engaging, action-oriented resources into the hands of state and local decision makers, community leaders, and other residents who stand to benefit, we can promote racial, economic, and health equity for communities and Native nations across the rural United States.

This blog post is the second in our Toward Better Rural Futures series, which highlights the unique assets of rural communities as well as the challenges they face. Stay tuned for future installments!

This blog series is part of the Toward Better Rural Futures project, which participates in the Aspen Institute’s Thrive Rural Initiative and is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Toward Better Rural Futures aims to foster greater collaboration and alignment across local, regional, and state levels of government, equipping leaders with the tools and knowledge to fundamentally shift power, opportunity, and resources in order to create healthy rural places where everyone can thrive.


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