Cornell social scientists honored for rural community impact

For their work addressing the causes and consequences of demographic change in rural America, a team of Cornell sociologists and other rural scholars have earned the Excellence in Multistate Research Award, given by the Western Association of Agricultural Experiment Station Directors. The award recognizes exemplary multistate scientific activities.

Cornell impacting New York State

The project, known as W4001, conducts research on the most pressing challenges faced by rural communities, where population trends are reshaping arenas such as food production and natural resource management, land use, ecological sustainability and community well-being. The findings have contributed to numerous local, state and national policies that support rural sustainability.

The project includes 34 investigators from 26 institutions in New York and 11 other states. Funding came from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture, with federal capacity funds for New York managed by the Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station.

Four Cornell sociologists are major contributors to the project: Dan Lichter, the Ferris Family Professor of Life Course Studies in the College of Human Ecology; David Brown and Joe Francis, professors emeriti in the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; and Nina Glasgow, retired senior research associate in the Department of Global Development.

The Cornell research influences local, state and national policy by contributing to better understanding and anticipation of present and future rural population trends, according to Glasgow. The project has informed policies related to the national opioid epidemic, the 2020 Census and migration.

“Our comprehensive research provides critical information for scientists, policymakers and residents of rural communities to decide where science-based knowledge and public interventions are needed, and the forms such actions might take,” said Glasgow, an authority on rural population aging.

In New York, Glasgow conducted outreach seminars, focused on enhancing the availability of services for older people in rural communities, with service providers and older residents in Hamilton and Clinton counties.

The National Academy of Sciences recruited Brown to organize a national workshop on rural definitions. Rural classification is important because it serves as an eligibility criterion for multiple national and state programs.

“More precise classification systems are critical to improving the accuracy of targeted assistance to rural communities and households,” said Brown, whose work examines the determinants and consequences of internal migration and the social, economic and environmental interdependences linking rural and urban areas.

The project also provided foundational research for the National Opioid Misuse Community Assessment Tool created by the USDA’s Office of Rural Development, and for the rural community prosperity index from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. These tools provide interactive data visualizations for creating county and state-level fact sheets highlighting overdose prevalence, as well as vulnerability data to aid community assessment, response planning and designing strategies to mitigate and prevent these crises.

In addition, the project has been key in developing county-level data on age-specific net migration and other demographic trends in New York and across the nation. Francis produced statistical models of geospatial variability in demographic, socioeconomic and environmental processes as they affect rural communities.

Lichter, whose research focuses on immigration’s role in shaping rural communities, has contributed to efforts to incorporate broader rural demographic trends and changes for New York state localities. He has briefed New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s staff on demographic trends related to the farm bill reauthorization and rural economic development issues, such as rural poverty, rural demographic change and rural infrastructure deficiencies.

“Rural America is experiencing population decline as never before,” Lichter said. “Our research shows that nearly 200 rural counties are now growing, but only because the arrival of immigrants has offset population declines among the native-born population. Immigrants have provided a demographic lifeline to chronic rural depopulation.”

Matt Hayes is associate director for communications for Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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