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Leon Kaye headshot

It’s Time to Stop Overlooking Rural America

Mariposa County offers a picture-perfect postcard snapshot of California, but this region faces many of the same challenges holding back rural America.
By Leon Kaye
Rural America

Mariposa, California, and the surrounding county that shares its name are gems for many reasons. Let’s start with mariposa, Spanish for butterfly and a perfect name for this area, as one of the best reasons to visit this small county are the monarch butterflies and other species that make their home in the foothills. The town of 2,200 is rich in architecture that dates back to the Gold Rush era, and its county courthouse (shown above) is the oldest such building still in use in the Golden State. Mariposa is also the gateway to the spectacular Merced River canyon and the Arch Rock entrance of nearby Yosemite National Park. Larger than Rhode Island with one-sixtieth of the state’s population, Mariposa County offers a picture-perfect postcard snapshot of rural America.

Home to just over 18,000 people, Mariposa County has certainly been prepared as tourists and the outdoors industry are ready for a reopening of business. Local officials have shown how municipalities can manage through a crisis: A recent Los Angeles Times profile details how county leaders focused on managing best they could during this crisis, and in doing so raised the bar for crisis management. At a time when the idea of contact tracing is now hyper-politicized, local public health officials have managed to test at least 5 percent of its population. Contrast that with nearby Fresno County, one hub of “Reopen California” protests where less than 2 percent of its 1 million residents have been tested for COVID-19. The millions of annual visitors ready to drive to Yosemite at a moment’s notice will test Mariposa’s resilience, but the region’s private and public sectors are prepared to manage as best they can.

But like much of rural America, Mariposa County does not benefit from the community engagement and community development programs that corporations are quick to showcase when given the opportunity.

Let’s start with internet access. In a state that boasts 97 percent of its residents having access to broadband, only 10 percent of Mariposa County residents can say they do. That statistic doesn’t bode well for rural communities hoping to benefit from an influx of remote workers – and Facebook’s recent announcement that it may adjust compensation based on employees’ new locations sends a strong signal that any mass relocation of the American workforce won’t occur soon. Estimates suggest as many as 42 million Americans lack access to broadband, including about 24 percent of rural residents. Almost 60 percent of rural Americans said in a 2018 survey that access to broadband is a problem where they live; even if they have it, their internet may not perform so well.

Companies including Microsoft and AT&T say they are addressing this problem, but if they are, rural residents aren’t getting the affordable broadband memo. Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, recently urged the U.S. Congress to fund broadband in rural communities as part of a COVID-19 relief package, but there’s no guarantee such public investments will happen any time soon, especially with federal deficits reaching unsustainable levels. Meanwhile, residents whose work, such as dairy farming, is increasingly dependent on internet access, find they have to go to extraordinary measures to keep their businesses afloat.

Mariposa County’s economy faces challenges that much of rural America confronts when the question of economic diversification comes up. The county’s economy leans largely on tourism, the public sector and retail – in that order. Fields like technology, professional services and finance – all of which lend themselves perfectly to working remotely – lag when compared to the U.S. economy and that of California’s.

The same goes for healthcare and banking, two other industries that have already been lurching toward a tipping point across much of rural America. Mariposa’s lone hospital has 34 beds, leaving it with a notably lower ratio of hospital beds per 1,000 residents when compared to Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County), a mere three-hour drive away.

In the end, this is a chicken-and-the-egg problem that cannot solve itself. Employees who could telework would be open to relocating, which would create opportunities to launch small “hubs” as companies rethink leasing space at massive office parks or skyscrapers — and discover that, yes, more remote areas certainly have talent. But these same workers need to be able to log in, and they want to ensure they have essential services like healthcare and banking. And therein lies another opportunity for companies and industries to work together for the good of all residents — and help boost their long-term profitability.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye