Weekly Columns

In the last census, more than half of Arkansas’s 75 counties lost population. That trend continues nationwide. In addition to shifting demographics, rural America faces other challenges including aging, infrastructure, declining health and lack of access to capital.

A perfect storm of factors led many residents to seek opportunities elsewhere, leaving behind lifelong homes in rural towns in favor of larger metropolitan areas. This trend is so troubling because, as many local leaders can attest, once a town loses population, healthcare facilities, schools and other critical infrastructure needed to sustain a community are the next things to go. 

The good news is that we are beginning to reverse that slide.

Over the past two years, the rural population has begun to rise while poverty levels in many of these communities have fallen. These metrics indicate that rural America is primed for a promising future.

That chapter will be written in part by the entrepreneurs and small business owners who call it home.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation have hosted a series of regional conferences around the country to share resources and tools available to rural stakeholders, ranchers, farmers and other small business owners in these communities. 

In January, the agencies convened their Path to Prosperity summit in Little Rock and brought together officials from all levels of government, in addition to private sector and nonprofit leaders, to highlight opportunities for rural business owners to leverage state and federal programs to boost their establishments.

Investing in this engagement is crucial. If you look at today's technology and the way it has evolved since 2002, you’ll see that many rural small businesses lack the necessary resources to compete in today’s world.

Small business owners depend on capital to invest in their operations and workforce. We need to advance policies that encourage borrowers and lenders rather than policies that make it harder to get access to essential funds.

Last year, the Senate passed legislation to decrease the barriers to capital many rural entrepreneurs encounter when launching and growing a business. The bill would require the Securities and Exchange Commission to submit an annual report to Congress about the existing hurdles and eventually lead to better policies to help small business owners.

When new businesses are created or existing ones expand, they create jobs for residents. These job opportunities encourage others to relocate to the area, enabling communities to grow around them.

I am committed to using my role as the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee to help foster that growth.

We can start by passing a farm bill that invests in rural America’s infrastructure while supporting community building programs – such as the ones stakeholders learned about at the Path to Prosperity event.

While we work in Washington to expand access to necessities like broadband and clean water in rural communities, long-term successful rural development requires strong leadership from community leaders on the ground. 

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and even more so in rural America.

We need small businesses owners and entrepreneurs to take the wheel and lead the way toward a future full of growth and positive change. 

I’m confident participants gained a better understanding of how to start a business, access capital and take advantage of public-private partnership opportunities to help them turn their ideas into reality and enhance their current operations.