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for people who care about the West

Seeking economic health for small towns

A project looks at how communities are faring in rural New Mexico.


This story is part of the State of Change project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Five years after the Great Recession officially ended, the USDA’s Economic Research Service took a look at the country’s road to economic recovery. In a report released in 2014, the ERS reported that rural employment grew more slowly than that of cities. In a map showing unemployment by county, the rural West lights up red with high rates of job seekers.

Those statistics highlight a common narrative in the rural U.S: what hits the country’s economy hard hits the rural areas even harder. In recent decades, changes in the mining and agriculture industries, due to market forces, mechanization and regulation, have resulted in falling employment and the fading-away of many of the industries that once buoyed rural America.

In New Mexico, where over a third of counties are predominantly rural, that reality has become especially urgent. Although agricultural jobs in the state are actually growing, the overall unemployment rate as of August was 6.3 percent, placing it 49th out of 50 states. In many small towns in New Mexico, it’s unclear what the economic future holds.

But all is not grim: in New Mexico and elsewhere, rural areas are finding creative ways to build their economies or keep them from declining, with mixed results. A new small business incubator is trying to help entrepreneurs build healthy businesses on Navajo Nation, for example. In Taos, businesses are making creative use of empty commercial spaces. And in Raton, a push to rebuild a long-ailing economy is several years in; there, residents are discovering that with new businesses come new challenges, including finding the workers to staff them.

Today, we are launching a project to examine these responses and see what other New Mexican and Western communities can learn from what’s being tried. Called “State of Change,” the project is a collaboration of 10 newsrooms from across New Mexico: KNME, KUNM, Santa Fe New Mexican, Taos News, Koahnic Broadcasting, Carlsbad Current-Argus, Gallup Independent, KRWG, New Mexico In Depth and NMpolitics.net. High Country News and Solutions Journalism Network are providing support and editing for the project; funding comes in part from the LOR Foundation.

For the next two weeks, we’ll be publishing stories examining what rural communities are trying to keep their towns stitched together and how well those efforts appear to be working. Read, watch and listen along at hcn.org or at your local news outlet. Share your thoughts on what small towns should try or what you think of the responses we highlight on Twitter using #NMresilience or on Facebook at your local news source’s page or the High Country News Facebook page.

Kate Schimel

Deputy editor-digital, High Country News

Project editor, State of Change