The rural-urban divide in Maryland has gotten worse in the last decade according to the 2020 census. Overall, Maryland saw a 7% population increase over the last decade – with fast growth along the Washington-Baltimore corridor, particularly in Frederick and Howard Counties. There has, of course, been substantial commentary about Baltimore City’s population exodus. The underreported story, however, is that Allegany and Garrett Counties in Western Maryland along with Dorchester, Kent, Somerset, and Talbot on the Eastern Shore all experienced population declines over the last decade.
Rapid growth in the Baltimore-Washington metro coupled with substantial population loss in rural counties is bad for all of us. Rural communities are systematically left behind and have increasingly less political and economic power. When people move away from rural areas, home values decline, the tax base erodes, and isolation increases. Population loss in rural areas also affects access to health, education, and economic opportunity. These trends propel a despairing cycle of economic, political, and social decline in rural communities. The result is grievance and disenchantment. Ultimately, this rural-urban divide fosters polarization, undermines governing institutions, and breaks any hope for national unity and bipartisanship.
Congress and the State of Maryland can blunt the decline of our rural communities by embracing a more visionary future. Here is how.
Install broadband with a priority for the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland as soon as President Biden’s infrastructure bill is passed. Folks who live along the I-95 corridor have not experienced the cost of poor connectivity. Without fast internet, rural schools cannot compete with Chevy Chase and Columbia schools. Without predictable connectivity, small businesses in rural economies cannot sell to regional, national, and international markets. Just like rural electrification during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time, last mile broadband is essential infrastructure for the next-generation economy.
Leverage public-private capital to jump start agricultural accelerators so farmers can sell value-added products to high-end buyers in the Mid-Atlantic. Progress is happening; Harford County, for instance, has piloted an agri-business incubator. The Grove, as the venture is called, is an outlet for local area farmers, artists, and food processors to sell their products directly to consumers and to promote agriculture commerce and sustainability. Maryland’s rural communities have the competitive advantage of being within driving distance to some of the richest cities on earth. Wineries and farm breweries were break-out agribusinesses for rural communities decades ago. This model can be expanded so local farms and fishing piers serve as a point of sale for a wide variety of other value-added, experiential products. The goal is to create sustainable jobs, drive local income, and grow regional trade for the benefit of our rural neighbors.
Incubate climate technologies. The debate about climate change is over. Capital markets and technology have already determined that our economy will move to climate solutions. The only issue before Maryland is whether we will design, develop, build, and sell climate solutions – or buy from those who do. The U.S. has gotten it right in the past when President Eisenhower established the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to incubate research and development projects to expand the frontiers of technology and science. DARPA helped shape the modern world; the Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine sits alongside weather satellites, GPS, drones, stealth technology, voice interfaces, the personal computer, and the internet on the list of innovations for which DARPA can claim at least partial credit. The Federal Government should set up a similar Advanced Research Projects Agency for the Climate (ARAPA-C) to help fund the technology advances for the next several decades. Given its proximity to Washington and the heightened risk of climate impact, Maryland’s Eastern Shore is ideally situated to research, test, and pilot these climate solutions.
Embrace Artificial Intelligence. AI will change economics in a way which may favor rural America over China. For the past 50 years, labor costs drove manufacturing and production offshore. AI will likely reduce China’s comparative advantage of low-skilled, repetitive task labor. Rural American manufacturers have an opportunity to gain global market share as low-skilled labor will no longer be the determinative cost for production. In addition to manufacturing, AI will help Maryland farmers reduce production costs by targeting fertilizer and pesticides to plant health and soil conditions to maximize harvest yields. Maryland’s rural communities have close access to some of the best talent in the world. Embracing new technologies like AI could be a net win for our people.
The Maryland State seal is inscribed with a farmer and a fisherman, symbols of our culture and legacy. Maryland – and America – will not succeed if the economy systematically leaves rural communities behind. Technology solutions coupled with public and private financing can close the prosperity gap. Maryland just needs the political leadership to drive a better future for our rural communities.
Dave Harden is a Democrat running in Maryland’s 1st District congressional race. Follow his campaign at www.hardenforcongress.com.