By Tom Still

MADISON – If you want to understand just how misleading the
unemployment rate can be as an economic indicator, take a look at rural

Using state labor force statistics, a review of a dozen
predominantly rural counties showed a sharp drop in the jobless rate for each
county between March 2014 and March 2015. In fact, the average percentage
decrease was nearly 1.7 percentage points for these counties: Adams, Ashland,
Florence, Green, Iron, Juneau, Lafayette, Langlade, Oneida, Rusk, Sawyer and

However, nine of those 12 counties registered March 2015
unemployment rates higher than the statewide average (5.4 percent). Several had
experienced a drop in the jobless rate while also recording a smaller civilian
workforce and fewer people working. Only half showed a significant increase in
the number of people working.

In short, the unemployment rate was down – but job growth
for those rural counties was stagnant.

The reasons likely range from an aging population to people
simply giving up looking for work to out-migration, but not necessarily to
places such as Minnesota or Michigan. For many people in rural Wisconsin,
pursuit of opportunity may just as easily lead to a job in Madison or the
Milwaukee area… or any of a dozen mid-sized cities statewide.

Read this column in the Wisconsin State Journal here  

The divide between urban and rural prosperity isn’t new, but
closing the gap appears to stubbornly resist the best efforts of many people in
federal and state governments, academia, communities, local education and
business. Unless you assume people simply don’t want to live in rural
Wisconsin, which runs counter to many quality of life arguments, the prosperity
gap compels closer inspection.

In a recent column, my suggestions for spurring economic
growth in rural Wisconsin included extending high-speed broadband coverage,
attracting investment capital, encouraging entrepreneurs, doing a better job of
pursuing federal grants, increasing exports and making the state more appealing
to young people from elsewhere – as well as those who left home and would like
to return.

Among the responses was a note from a veteran grant writer,
who suggested Wisconsin fares poorly in pursuing grants from the U.S.
Department of Agriculture because it lacks the support system to actually write
the proposals. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer
Protection ended a “Producer First” program that provided seed dollars for
grant and business plan writing, which helped entrepreneurs in the agricultural

“Yes, there is (federal money), but access to those funds
requires planning and investment by all involved,” he wrote.

Other responses came from people in government, state and
federal, or economic development professionals who cited additional examples of
programs and initiatives in the works.

For example, Gov. Scott Walker’s two-year budget bill
includes programs related to transportation for rural schools, a “sparsity aid”
program for small districts, a water-quality initiative tied to farm producers,
other non-point pollution programs, a transfer of $6 million to the Broadband
Expansion Grant program, expansion of the Technology for Educational
Achievement program for rural schools, and other infrastructure improvements
tied to transportation, dam repair and the Eau Claire-area Confluence Arts and
Community Center.

The second year of Walker’s budget included $55 million to
establish revolving loan funds to be administered by regional economic
development organizations and to be overseen by the new Forward Wisconsin
Development Authority. Now that plans for that merged authority are off the
table, Walker has pulled back the revolving fund idea, as well.

Wisconsin projects cited by the USDA, beginning in 2009,
include investments in 386 rural businesses, $122 million invested in rural
manufacturing, rural housing programs that helped 22,940 families and
investments in export development, broadband and water treatment and supply.

Other examples came from local economic development
professionals and the University of Wisconsin System, which increasingly seeks
to tie the mission of its four-year and two-year campuses to applying knowledge
close to home.

With all that activity, why is rural Wisconsin’s economy
still sputtering? While there’s likely no single answer, there may well be
multiple answers that involve partnerships across business, educational and
government lines.

Too often, it appears, partisan politics get in the way of
better state and federal cooperation. Local development efforts are complicated
by fights over which jurisdiction gets the property tax revenue if there’s a
business expansion or relocation. Businesses may not do the homework to learn
about academic resources right under their noses… and campuses don’t always
set up “one-stop” ports of entry for businesses that try to do so.

Wisconsin’s overall economy will continue to lag the nation
unless its rural areas begin to keep pace with the urban. Let’s hope both parts
can move forward together.