A Systemic Framework for Understanding the Dynamics of Rural Communities in America

by Gery W. Ryan, David Catt, Lauren Davis, J. Luke Irwin, Susan M. Sohler Everingham

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The rhetoric in the 2016 election laid bare a growing social, economic, and political gulf between "rural" and "urban" America. Some rural communities have been advantaged by global economic, demographic and technological trends and have thrived over the last several decades while others have stagnated and begun to decay. These disparities have pervasive negative consequences that deeply impact many rural areas: the opioid epidemic, rising rural unemployment and poverty, and dangerous discourse across racial, national, and class lines. Although both the popular and academic literature offer important insights into the many influential and overlapping factors that contribute to these problems, there is no comprehensive understanding of how all the mechanisms fit together as a larger system.

To address these issues, this manuscript describes a basic, multi-level framework for mapping the system of factors and mechanisms that most influence positive and negative outcomes in rural communities. We use a series of examples to demonstrate how the framework works, how it can be used to help illuminate a community's dynamic processes of change, and how it can help assess the potential impact of alternative interventions. We conclude with a discussion of policy implications for decisionmakers at the local, state, and federal level and outline a broad research agenda for those wishing to further explore this domain.

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