Wisconsin’s policy-makers need to put the needs of rural Wisconsin front and center in order to keep rural jobs, industries, young families and culture in place, a new report from the state’s Office of Rural Prosperity states.
But there is no silver bullet for solving the problems of rural Wisconsin. Every rural community is different and challenges are connected, according to the report.
Near the top of the list, and a consistent throughline of every other major challenge in the state’s rural areas, is broadband internet access. High-speed internet access is the first domino to building healthier rural communities.
“Broadband is a baseline requirement for a prosperous rural Wisconsin,” the report states. “Broadband makes telehealth possible. Broadband makes K-12 and post-secondary telelearning possible. Broadband provides access to job listings and workforce preparation programs. The delivery of government information and transactions with both government and private financial institutions and vendors is increasingly conducted online. Broadband reduces the cost of providing essential human services. It can help provide rapid public safety information.”
In many parts of the state there is only one internet service provider (ISP) and state regulations prevent local governments from stepping in and doing it on their own.
The report says current grant programs to help communities increase broadband and fiber internet access need to be expanded but barriers to communities building out their own infrastructure and collaborating with neighbors also need to be removed.
The need for better internet access, aided by government efforts, is similar to the work to provide rural electricity in the 1930s, the report states.
But broadband internet is just one brick in the foundation of a structure that can help Wisconsin’s rural communities. These places also need better community institutions and services that will allow young people and young families to live there — and not be forced to move to urban areas or out of state.
These needs include better access to childcare, more investment in education, higher wages in certain industries and a more diverse housing stock.
Without childcare or investment in schools, rural areas will continue to see a drain of young families who need quality schools and adequate child care that allows for multiple parents to work.
The report recommends simpler regulations on local child care centers and assistance that allows them to make ends meet. It also states that Wisconsin must restore its commitment to providing two-thirds funding for public schools.
Exacerbating the problems of rural areas are low wages and lack of affordable housing, according to the report.
The report states that lower cost of living in rural areas is a myth. In fact, it often costs more to live in rural areas because of a lack of competition and the need for local businesses to make smaller or more specific orders.
While wages are high in some rural industries, others remain low, and many rural community members are forced to piece together a living by working three or four part-time or seasonal jobs over a year.
Even if a person has access to child care and earns a living wage, it can be a challenge to find suitable affordable housing, according to the report. Lack of senior living forces an aging rural population to remain in homes too large for their needs. A lack of affordable rental housing close to amenities drives away young people and families who don’t have the desire or ability to live in large single-family homes.
“Issues related to housing, land and real estate are holding back rural prosperity across Wisconsin … Decent, affordable workforce housing is a major issue across much of rural Wisconsin,” the report states. “It’s not just one kind of housing that is an issue in rural places. Challenges exist for many types of housing including workforce, senior, seasonal, affordable and rental, housing.”
Ultimately, the report recommends an “all-of-government” approach to solving these and other issues facing Wisconsin’s rural and tribal communities.