Ro Khanna
Ro Khanna

March 7, 2019

Our country’s future depends upon the success of rural America.

In the last couple of years, I’ve toured small towns in eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Iowa.

Those visits have left me convinced that our nation’s small towns are the places that will grow the entrepreneurs and technology leaders of tomorrow.

Any policy that tries to incentivize rural Americans to move to the coasts is misguided.

Research suggests that the feeling of community that is inherent in close-knit towns can be a key competitive advantage for entrepreneurial success.

In fact, technology companies on the coasts might do well to adopt a community-driven ethos. If they paid their blue-collar workers a living wage and took steps to making housing more affordable, these companies might enjoy more goodwill from the public.

Moreover, the aspirations of young people in small towns are as global as they come.

I’ve met young people who descend from generations of coal miners in Kentucky, and others raised on hog farms in Iowa who understand the changing economy and have a fascination with technology. When empowered with apprenticeship programs and software bootcamps, they innovate with a passion that rivals their coastal peers.

And yet, due to under-investments into education and healthcare, many rural communities have suffered disproportionately. One out of every four babies in rural America is born below the poverty line. Entrepreneurs in any community might find a way to open a store or restaurant, but if the rest of the town can’t afford to shop or dine there, what are the chance of its survival?

Fortunately, the digital economy offers access to a global marketplace and the chance to bring prosperity to communities left behind. But we need investments that tap into the capability of our people. These investments include debt-free public college tuition, universal health care regardless of age, high-speed internet and grants that allow entrepreneurs to stay in their communities and inspire other local talent to do the same.

I’ve proposed legislation that would give additional funds to existing community colleges and universities so that they can create tech institutes.

West Virginia University Institute of Technology, a four-year college located in Beckley, is a model for this. Empowering their graduates with skills to compete in a global economy, this school lures students from across the state to pursue technology degrees.

In 2016, a federal circuit court ruled that high-speed Internet can be defined as a public utility. Just as government makes water and electricity available, and just as government once invested in railroads and highways to move people and products to new markets, it’s crucial that the government make the $80 billion investment to open high-speed internet access to every corner of our country.

And finally, as more jobs can be done remotely from any corner of the world, we need to incentivize employers to prioritize hiring technology workers in rural communities — encouraging them to work from home or communal workspaces. Federal agencies right now can be required to hire workers from rural communities.

Rural America, often thought of as mostly white, is in truth only 14 percent less diverse than the country as a whole. The rich diversity, mixed with their communal ethos, makes these communities prime candidates to be participants and leaders in a global economy.

Talent in America is universal, but opportunity is not.

Our federal government should prioritize rural America. If we succeed, no one will have to leave their home to find meaningful work or pursue their dreams. And if we succeed, the heartland might well be the backbone of the digital economy.

U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, a Democrat, represents the Silicon Valley area of California. He has been closely involved in boosting technology development in Jefferson with plans to do more in western and central Iowa communities. He is not a candidate for president.