Rural Development


Rural America’s economic performance has generally lagged that of urban America for decades. Although some rural communities continue to prosper, many have faced stagnant or declining economic conditions. This has resulted in a lack of economic mobility for many rural Americans. This situation is more dire for AI/AN people, who rank at or near the bottom of nearly all economic, social, and health outcomes. For example, the poverty rate of AI/AN people is three times the rate of non-Hispanic white people.

Although the federal government provides funding for rural economic development, it is spread across a complicated web of hundreds of programs in dozens of agencies. Many rural communities lack the capacity to identify and apply for available funding as well as to manage any awarded funds. Moreover, these programs frequently use eligibility requirements and scoring criteria that favor better-resourced or more densely populated areas. The federal government has attempted to simplify this process, but many rural communities still struggle to obtain funding. The AARP Rural Development Principles are intended to improve economic development outcomes for rural communities.

While federal investment is crucial to rural economic development, particularly for larger-scale projects, it must also be coupled with local investment. In particular, investments in Main Streets by the public, private, and philanthropic sectors can help revitalize rural downtown areas. Main Streets help create, support, and expand local small businesses. They also play a key role in bringing residents together to live, shop, and socialize.

AI/AN community needs: AI/AN communities face many of the same challenges as rural communities with respect to obtaining federal economic development funding. Federal funding for the AI/AN population is spread out over seven different agencies, making it hard to identify and access it. In addition, many tribes don’t have sufficient capacity to apply for assistance and execute projects. 

Moreover, the total amount of economic development assistance provided to tribal entities is unknown. Most agencies do not analyze or report data on assistance provided. Such agencies include the Department of Commerce’s Office of Native American Business Development, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Office of Tribal Relations, and the Small Business Administration’s Office of Native American Affairs. USDA’s Rural Development already analyzes data to estimate assistance provided to tribal entities and reports their findings. Without this vital information, agencies may not understand which tribal entities are accessing their programs and which are not, what tribes and areas may need additional targeted outreach, and how to otherwise improve tribal assistance programs.



Rural Main Street development

Small towns and rural communities should provide opportunities for residents of all ages and backgrounds to live, shop, socialize, and participate in civic life. They should use tools, such as land use policies and zoning regulations, to promote rural downtown revitalization. This includes encouraging local businesses to cluster along Main Street corridors. Public, private, and philanthropic investments should be used to create community gathering spaces and events near Main Street corridors when possible.

Data collection and transparency

Federal agencies that provide economic development funding to tribal entities should work in coordination with them to collect, analyze, and report the amount of assistance provided. Agencies should use the data to identify opportunities to improve outreach, technical support, and the funding offered.