State Of Change: Seeking Economic Health For Small Towns

Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, the USDA’s Economic Research Service took a look at the country’s road to economic recovery. In a report released in 2014, the ERS reported that rural employment grew more slowly than that of cities. In a map showing unemployment by county, the rural West lights up red with high rates of job seekers.

Those statistics highlight a common narrative in the rural U.S: what hits the country’s economy hard hits the rural areas even harder. In recent decades, changes in the mining and agriculture industries, due to market forces, mechanization and regulation, have resulted in falling employment and the fading-away of many of the industries that once buoyed rural America.

In New Mexico, where over a third of counties are predominantly rural, that reality has become especially urgent. Although agricultural jobs in the state are actually growing, the overall unemployment rate as of August was 6.3 percent, placing it 49th out of 50 states. In many small towns in New Mexico, it’s unclear what the economic future holds.

But all is not grim: in New Mexico and elsewhere, rural areas are finding creative ways to build their economies or keep them from declining, with mixed results. A new small business incubator is trying to help entrepreneurs build healthy businesses on Navajo Nation, for example. In Taos, businesses are making creative use of empty commercial spaces. And in Raton, a push to rebuild a long-ailing economy is several years in; there, residents are discovering that with new businesses come new challenges, including finding the workers to staff them.

This project examine sthese responses and looks at what other New Mexican and Western communities can learn from what’s being tried. Called “State of Change,” the project is a collaboration of 10 newsrooms from across New Mexico: KNME, KUNM, Santa Fe New Mexican, Taos News, Koahnic Broadcasting, Carlsbad Current-Argus, Gallup Independent, KRWG, New Mexico In Depth and NMpolitics.net. High Country News and Solutions Journalism Network are providing support and editing for the project; funding comes from the LOR Foundation.

Our stories examine what rural communities are trying to keep their towns stitched together and how well those efforts appear to be working. Read, watch and listen along at hcn.org or at your local news outlet. Share your thoughts on what small towns should try or what you think of the responses we highlight on Twitter using #NMresilience or on Facebook at your local news source’s page or at www.facebook.com/highcountrynews/.

Kate Schimel

Deputy editor-digital, High Country News

Project editor, State of Change

Marisa Demarco / KUNM

When the oil and gas industry takes a dive, or when extractive industries tank, so do economies in rural areas, where a lot of the jobs come from drilling, or mining, or power plants. A business incubator is helping entrepreneurs on the Navajo Nation with the idea that local skills and talents—and cash flowing in and out of local businesses—are key to independence from environmentally damaging corporations. 

Marisa Demarco / KUNM

Oil and gas drilling and mining companies come to rural areas offering jobs and cash, but they also dig into the land, pull resources out of it and create pollution. There are some folks in these regions who say the trade off isn’t fair in the long run. One organization is working on the Navajo Nation to stabilize the boom-and-bust economy of extraction by boosting local entrepreneurs and small business.

Ed Williams / KUNM/Public Health New Mexico

The Indian Health Service—the federal agency tasked with providing health services to Native American communities—has long been the go-to health care provider for tribes in New Mexico and across the country.

But in recent years, that has started to change, and a growing number of tribes are deciding that managing their own clinics and behavioral health programs will help build healthier, more resilient communities.

Leah Todd

Let’s Talk New Mexico 10/26 8a: In New Mexico and across the West, economies are changing. From agriculture to tech startups, health care and business on tribal lands, communities in New Mexico are working to adapt. 

This week on Let’s Talk New Mexico, we’re looking at communities who are coming up with solutions to the economic changes our state is facing as part of our collaboration with the Solutions Journalism Network's State of Change project.