Volume X | Issue 2 | Fall 2010
One of the most important impacts people can have on their economy is creating a positive environment. Supporting local businesses will help ensure they stay open.

Develop people to develop jobs

All of us plays a role, great or small, in how a community creates jobs

During the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton’s campaign advisor James Carville coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid.” Carville wanted to keep Clinton and the staff focused on what was important to people. Today, the phrase rings true to many rural people and communities, where living-wage jobs or new businesses would solve many problems.

My own variation, “It’s the people, stupid,” is on the whiteboard in my office at the Ford Institute, reminding me, our staff and contractors that people are the common denominator of all that we do. We sometimes need to remind ourselves: Organizations and collaborations don’t make decisions; people within them make decisions. 

One of the bits of wisdom I’ve learned is “life ain’t fair” 

For the Institute, we expect to strengthen a community’s economy by developing the capacity of people in the community.

At first glance that may seem naïve — there are so many factors such as world markets and federal land regulations that influence communities. Factors such as these, however, are often out of a community’s control. One of the bits of wisdom I’ve learned over the years is  “life ain’t fair.” We don’t all get the same resources and opportunities, but we do get luckier the harder and smarter we work. The one variable in the equation that leads to a strong economy is us — what we do to make good things come our way. 

We cannot wait to be rescued, and we cannot go back to the past when things may have been better. Fortunately, there are many external resources available; however, there is competition among communities for those resources. 

Increasingly, outside investors direct their resources to those communities that already are helping themselves, that have a shared vision and priorities. A key word is “shared,” as the vision needs to be that of the whole community, not a select few. 

External resources matter, but how community members act is even more important. Citizens need to support actions that attract and sustain businesses — such as infrastructure and quality-of-life features. It might be by voting for the right candidate, serving on a board or volunteering. Each of us plays a role, from great to small, in how a community creates jobs.

Attitude matters

Another way people help the economy is through attitude. My family hails from a small town in North Dakota that has more than its share of naysayers who are quick to bet that a new business won’t make it, and no doubt are part of the reason why. One of the most important impacts people can have on their economy is creating a positive environment. As Henry Ford said, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you are right.” 

People can help their economy by being entrepreneurial and making their own job and, perhaps, jobs for others. Small towns thrive on small business, and many have entrepreneurs who might make it with some community cheering.

We also can look inside the community for ideas and resources. Young people may have talents that create a new business and access a world market. Retirees not only bring stable income from an outside source, but they may have substantial experience in an industry, important contacts to make things happen, some latent ideas they would enjoy developing and funds to make them happen. There will be 80 million baby boomers retiring in the next 16 years; economists estimate that half of us will want to live a rural lifestyle.

It is because people make the economy that we want a broad and diverse base of community leaders to support a diverse economy.

The Ford Institute is not in the business of economic development in a direct way, but it is very much involved through the decisions each of you makes to help your community. 


School bus travels down a country roadSchools are one of the building blocks of community.

As roads have become better and vehicles more reliable, the ease of travel has promoted consolidation of many important rural services to regional centers. Stores and clinics in small towns have closed, and it is common for rural residents to travel great distances to shop for groceries or receive health care. 

Similarly, small schools are being consolidated into large, regional schools supported by an expansive bus service.  

So should we care if a small town loses its grocery store, clinic or school? Yes. These three services are building blocks of community vitality. They provide a core of jobs, keep dollars and talent in the community, and make the community a better place to live. They make it possible for older generations to stay in town and are important in bringing younger generations back.

Of course, the size of a community matters, and there are thresholds below which it is very difficult to support these services. However, there are communities that are exploring ways to keep these services alive in their town; through Community Vitality and the RIPPLE website, we continue to share the practices that work. 

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