Rural economic trends

MEGAN HANEFELDT with the Knox County Development Agency talks with community members in Crofton as part of a rural economic research project undertaken by Nebraska Extension and the National 4-H Council.

An essential feature of America’s identity is the notion that if you work hard, a better economic future awaits.

But that is often an aspiration rather than a reality for recent generations. The widely held belief is increasingly evading the nation’s young people, especially those in rural communities.

Researchers and journalists have documented the challenges confronting the nation’s rural communities — dwindling populations, few employment opportunities, the opioid crisis and a lack of public investment.

However, there are many rural communities, including some in Northeast Nebraska, that are surmounting these obstacles and helping young people build a brighter future.

Nebraska Extension and the National 4-H Council recently collaborated with The Bridgespan Group to more deeply understand the places in rural America where upward mobility is thriving and learn what makes those communities successful.

Last spring, a team of researchers from The Bridgespan Group visited seven sites in Cedar and Knox counties to learn firsthand about what can make a difference, with the hope of replicating those models in other communities nationwide. The team visited with young people, community leaders, educational representatives and business partners. Factors consistent across the communities were:

— A high expectation that youth will “opt in” and work hard to acquire the skills to build a better future; a low tolerance for opting out.

— Strong, informal support systems, with neighbors helping neighbors.

— An early focus on career pathways.

— A wealth of opportunities for youths to build life skills, regardless of the community’s size.

— Many potential challenges to accessing opportunities, with creative solutions for overcoming them.

— A sense of shared fate and a deep commitment to sustaining the community.

While some of these beliefs may seem out of the norm for some communities, Jackie Steffen, an extension 4-H educator in Northeast Nebraska, said, “This is just the way we do business in rural Nebraska.”

To build on what was learned and formulate the next steps, conversations are underway in Northeast Nebraska.

The next community conversation is set for 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 15, at the Cedar County Extension office in Hartington. It will be in conjunction with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s N150 Charter Day celebration. All are welcome to attend the meeting and celebration.

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Want to learn more?

For more information about the Feb. 15 meeting, contact the Cedar County Extension office at 402-254-6821. The complete report by the National 4-H Council and The Bridgespan Group can be found at

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