The opportunities and challenges faced by youth in rural America

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Two young people, one wearing a pink shirt, one wearing a green shirt, staring at a field overlooking the sunset

Rural areas are essentially the backbone of America, but more and more young people are eschewing their rural roots in order to seek better opportunities in metropolitan areas. While there are a number of advantages to growing up in a rural environment, such as wide open spaces and a tight-knit community, many young people in rural America believe that the challenges outweigh the perks. Young people who choose to relocate to urban areas are typically seeking higher wages and increased access to resources such as healthcare, education, and healthy food.

The Center for American Progress reports that rural areas constitute 97 percent of America’s landmass, yet those same areas are home to only about one-fifth of the national population. As such, those living in rural communities are more likely to experience poverty and have reduced access to healthy food and public transportation. Further, youth in rural America may not have as much opportunity to socialize with their peers, either in person or online. 

For young people living below the poverty line in rural areas, the idea of moving to the big city may be enticing. But the increased job opportunities in urban areas is only a small piece of a much larger picture when it comes to social mobility. Researchers have found several key factors that support the economic advancement of young people, including strong support systems and creative solutions for accessing opportunities. Geographic location, therefore, doesn’t necessarily correlate with career and economic opportunities, and a rural lifestyle may prove to be more advantageous than challenging for young Americans.

Life in an American Food Desert 

In metropolitan America, access to both food and the Internet is often taken for granted. But in rural communities, Internet access can be spotty or even nonexistent, and purchasing fresh food may require a long commute to the nearest grocery store or farmer’s market. Rural areas where at least 33 percent of the population resides more than 10 miles from a supermarket are known as “food deserts.”

The American Nutrition Association defines food deserts as, “parts of the country vapid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods, usually found in impoverished areas.” Many of America’s food deserts are located in rural areas where residents must travel a considerable distance in order to access fresh food. But food deserts aren’t confined to rural America: More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, many of whom reside in major cities. The nation’s top urban food deserts include New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, and Memphis, and young people looking to escape rural America should be aware that food insecurity can occur anywhere. 

To fill in the gaps where nutrition and access to fresh food is concerned, rural families actually have an advantage over their urban equivalents. In rural areas, it’s often easier to fill in nutrition gaps by growing one’s own fruits and vegetables. For those who lack outdoor garden space, an indoor herb garden can serve as a learning opportunity, as well as provide flavor to basic food items. 

Social Connectivity in Rural Communities

For those who have nearly constant access to movie and music streaming, social media, and online news sources, the idea of living without the internet may seem unfathomable. But the lack of internet is a reality for many youths in rural America, which can be problematic for both social connection opportunities and digital literacy. For instance, it can be extremely difficult for young people to complete a homework assignment or research paper without internet access.

More than 10 percent of Americans don’t have regular access to the internet, and the problem is primarily confined to rural areas. Yet it doesn't necessarily have to be a problem — real-life communication and physical books may be even more valuable than their digital counterparts. And by learning how to live without the internet, young people may avoid modern issues such as technology addiction and social media bullying. 

Employment Options for Rural Youth

Fortunately for young people in rural America, making the move to a city isn’t the only avenue for the betterment of one’s life. There’s plenty of opportunity in rural communities, as long as one knows where to look. Rural youth often enter the workforce at a young age, helping out in the fields or with animal husbandry on farms, meaning that those young people can start building a nest egg even before their 13th birthday. 

In the U.S., children as young as 12 can be hired in farm and/or agricultural settings, and there are no restrictions on the hours in which they can work. More than 500,000 young people work in the U.S. agriculture industry. Unfortunately, the hours can be grueling and the job hazardous, especially when it comes to pesticide poisoning. Rural youth can avoid the hazards that accompany farm work by seeking employment on an organic farm, where no chemicals are used, or by entering the traditional job force.

For many first-time job seekers, finding gainful employment while in high school can be a challenge, in rural and urban America alike. Youth who are ready to enter the workforce should seek out school- and community-based resources that can help guide them through the job search process. High school students should learn how to write a resume, even if they have no formal work experience. All types of work can be included on a young person’s first resume, from farm work to mowing lawns and babysitting.

America’s future depends on the success of our young people, and those living in rural areas are just as important as urban dwellers. Youth in rural America have the advantage of a more nuanced view of the nation, where community ties are more important than status updates. Rather than looking to the big city as a means to a better life, young people should instead consider how they can keep their communities strong, and bring new ideas to the American Dream. 

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