Disparities in levels of wealth and income in America are in sharp focus in the current political discussion, with talk of a disappearing middle class and variable opportunities for young people. In Utah, the disparity is most pronounced not in categories of age or educational level, but in whether or not people live in urban or rural areas. In small towns, jobs are limited and in many instances, disappearing. There is an increasing rate of out-migration to cities where more jobs and better pay are available, and the trends do not suggest a significant chance of that reversing.
That’s why it’s good to take note of a program that receives little acclaim, but is vital in helping to shore up the economies in Utah’s vast tracks of rural territory. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development recently awarded what are called Rural Fast Track grants to eight businesses to help boost local employment, at wages higher than average in the respective areas. The grants amount in total to a little less than $400,000, but they will create 84 jobs, which may not seem like a lot, but in relation to employment in the communities affected, it is. Between 2014 and 2015, Beaver, Carbon, Daggett, Emery, Garfield, Kane and Wayne counties lost a total of 684 residents, largely attributed to the search for employment elsewhere. Jobs created by the fast track grants amount to about 12 percent of that number, a significant hedge against more out-migration.
Offering help to rural economies is sound policy, particularly given the levels of joblessness. While the unemployment rate statewide hovers around 3.5 percent, in many rural counties, the rate is much higher. Five counties – Duchesne, Wayne, San Juan, Uintah and Garfield – average a current unemployment rate of 9.8 percent – nearly triple the state average. These are areas in economic transition, where traditional agriculture and mining jobs are in consistent decline. Some rural counties have been able to weather the storm better than others. Millard County, for example, saw its unemployment rate drop from about 6 percent in 2012 to a current 3 percent by adding non-farm jobs, most in the categories of manufacturing and professional and business services.
In urban areas, political leaders are fond of touting economic development projects that bring new jobs. But in a lot of cases, they do not necessarily represent a net increase in employment, but a transfer of employment from jobs lost in rural areas. Efforts like the rural assistance program are necessary to nourish the economies in those rural communities that have and will continue to make vital contributions to the state’s overall economic health.