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Investing in Rural America Conference Highlights the Burdens and Successes of Rural Economies

At the 2023 Investing in Rural America Conference, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond will acknowledge the economic challenges rural communities face while highlighting success stories, including an inaugural class of incarcerated students soon to graduate with bachelors degrees from a South Carolina university. 

“Our job is to be out and about in the district, finding out what’s going on,” said Laura Ullrich, a senior regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, colloquially known as the Richmond Fed. The Richmond Fed serves the fifth district, which includes North and South Carolina, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Virginia, and most of West Virginia.  

“We’re kind of like boots on the ground economists,” Ullrich said.

As practical economists, Ullrich and her team collect data and perform surveys, but they also go out into communities to build relationships and to learn how local economies are affecting people’s everyday lives. 

One of their initiatives involves higher education reform in rural communities. Ullrich is currently writing about NC Tech Paths, a program that trains students near Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to work in the tech industry. 

“They’re intentionally marketing those workers to large companies that are allowing remote work,” said Ullrich. “They’ve just opened their first co-working space in North Wilkesboro.”

Lenoir Community College in eastern North Carolina is also engaging the workforce in their rural region by providing all-Spanish courses for their Spanish speaking students. 

Some of the community leaders from the higher education programs will be speaking at the conference, including a representative of Claflin University in Orangeburg, South Carolina, who works with Pathways for Prison, a program funded by the Second Chance Pell Grant Pilot Program that provides higher education for incarcerated individuals.

“They’ve been really successful,” Ullrich said about the program. “They’re about to start graduating folks out of those programs. Somebody from that organization will be on my panel. And then there will be a couple of other educators or community college folks [at the conference].”

Why Invest in Rural America?

“As we know from the data, you have a disproportionate number of folks in rural communities experiencing disproportionate outcomes versus the urban communities across the district,” said Carrie Cook, the Vice President and Community Affairs Officer at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond.

For example, rural counties in the Fifth District tend to have a greater share of adults who are not employed and not looking for work, meaning they have what economists refer to as a low labor force participation rate. Ullrich said many of these individuals aren’t actively looking for work because they don’t have resources like transportation or childcare. 

Rural counties within the district also tend to have higher poverty rates, particularly those rural counties not adjacent to urban centers. 

Cook seeks to level out these disparities in rural areas through the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977, which encourages banks to meet the credit needs of the communities they serve. At the Richmond Fed, Cook is the point of contact for all things related to the CRA. 

“The CRA looks at financial inclusion and supporting economic mobility for low to moderate income families across the fifth district and across our country,” said Cook. “We work closely with a number of different folks to understand the economic conditions that are impacting communities.”

There’s a session at the conference specifically geared towards meeting the financial needs of rural communities through Community Development Financial Institutions, or CDFI. 

“CDFI are treasury certified lenders designed to do business in under-resourced communities,” said Cook. 

CDFI fund organizations that serve the economic needs of local communities by providing financing for under – resourced areas.

“We’ve got about 50 rural-serving CDFIs across the fifth district, and we’ve invited all of them to come in and [talk about] how they are helping to meet the capital and credit needs of rural individuals, communities, and regions.”

Investing in Rural America Conference Invites You to Join

The conference kicks off at Hotel Roanoke on April 11 at 1:00 PM, EST

The day two keynote speaker is Anita Brown Graham, the Gladys Hall Coates Distinguished Professor of Public Law and Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

“Graham has done a lot of work around community development, research, and supporting communities across the state,” said Cook. “So we’re excited to have her on the docket.”

But academics and economists are not the only ones invited to attend Investing in Rural America. The conference welcomes anyone interested in serving rural communities, from community representatives and business executives, to nonprofit leaders and investors. 

The deadline for registration is March 27, 2023, so reserve your spot here

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