Rural Infrastructure Vital for Nebraska's Future

Rural Infrastructure Vital for Nebraska's Future

Dr. Sandra Scofield
Dr. Sandra Scofield

People don't think about infrastructure till the bridge in their community falls down - then it becomes important. Even though Nebraska has spent a lot of money on infrastructure, it's never enough, especially since the state's infrastructure needs are expanding and are critical to the state's growth. A few of the state's infrastructure needs are roads, bridges, power, quality water, schools, health care...and high-speed Internet.

"You used to want the highway to go by your town. You still do, but if you don't have access to high-speed Internet, it affects business interests in your community," said Dr. Sandra Scofield, Director of the University of Nebraska Rural Initiative. "Dial-up just doesn't do it anymore for most people. And if you want young people to look at your town and stay there, they can't imagine living somewhere that doesn't have Internet as fast and affordable as they have enjoyed at the university," she said. "When you've been there, you aren't going to go back."

The University of Nebraska Rural Initiative was created in 2002 to extend the resources of the University of Nebraska and to address the challenges that face rural Nebraska, she said. The organization identifies all the knowledge, skills and creativity on all four of the university's campuses and focuses all of that talent on issues facing greater Nebraska.

"We support research, work in partnership with a variety of university organizations either to support things they're doing or to gain their support for things we're doing," she said. One of the projects is to work with rural state senators interested in the future of rural Nebraska. One of the things they have identified is expanding access and affordability of high-speed Internet.

"I'm a big advocate of trying to get ahead of the whole communications technology explosion," she said. "I think that has critical implications for what we might be able to do in terms of our future economy." That means Nebraska has to have a well-educated population and it has to be appealing to young people. You have to have one to have the other, she said.

Scofield served in the Nebraska Legislature from 1983-1990 as a senator from northwest Nebraska; she still has a farm near Chadron. Through her work and education, she understands the needs of both rural and urban areas.

Nebraska's economic drivers are agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, trucking, professional business services and information services, she said. Statistics list only drivers that bring revenue into the state, so that explains why education and health care aren't listed, even though they are big players, she added.

"The ag economy gives us a stable base," she said. "People are going to have to eat, and Nebraska has a rich base of resources in terms of soil and water - and that's not going away." Even when the state experiences economic downturns, that stable base, combined with the state's constitutional requirement of a balanced budget ("we're not wild spenders in Nebraska") buffers the state from the most severe effects.

Rural vs. Urban Incomes
However, some trends are emerging that concern Scofield. Nebraska statistics show that Nebraska is one of the top five states in the country in which people have two or three jobs. Nebraska has more women in the work force than any other state. "We may have more people at a subsistence level than we would like to think," she said.

Some of the people in the statistics show up as entrepreneurs, but they're not. "It simply means that a person may have had a job with a company that said 'you don't have this job anymore, but we'll contract with you,'" Scofield explained. That means you won't make as much money and you probably won't have benefits, she added.

In terms of wealth people have at their disposal, Nebraskans are getting poorer in some areas of the state. Some of the statistics can read differently depending on when and where the numbers were collected. In an ag state, prices fluctuate, so if the numbers are collected when cattle prices are bad, "you're going to look poor," she said, "but if you look at the incomes in rural Nebraska, they are considerably below Omaha."

Certain counties always show up in statistics, she said; Thurston County, with its two Indian reservations, always comes up in poverty statistics. Some statistics show that Nebraska has three of the poorest counties in the United States.
Nebraska needs a stream of well-educated people to stay economically healthy, she said. That need will increase in the future, with technology being a part of nearly every career. However, the state is short of workers of any kind, just like many states. In fact, states are competing for the educated, technically-trained work force. Education and technology often combine to produce higher incomes, which benefit the state.

"Nobody ever writes headlines about somebody who prevented something, because not everybody's sure that's going to happen. Now if the fire's burning and you put it out, then you make headlines. If you're smart enough to prevent it, you don't get any mention at all.

Omaha, with its expanding information technology industry and Fortune 500 companies, attracts many educated workers from greater Nebraska and from other states. Although Omaha generates the majority of the sales and income tax revenue for the state, communities in the state are interdependent. If greater Nebraska is successful, Omaha is successful...and vice versa.

Expectations of State Government
Scofield served two terms in the Nebraska Unicameral, serving on committees including appropriations, agriculture, education and children and families.

The role of state government is first, to maintain civic order, but also to provide for those who are unable to provide for themselves. Beyond that, Scofield would like to see state government provide vision and leadership for the future, allocating resources in a responsible way so the state can achieve a healthy future.

"Most people who go to the Unicameral have that same set of desires," she said. But while senators are solving the short-term crises, they aren't doing other things that are also important to the state's future.

Preventing future problems takes a lot of senators' time, she added, but "nobody ever writes headlines about somebody who prevented something, because not everybody's sure that's going to happen. Now if the fire's burning and you put it out, then you make headlines. If you're smart enough to prevent it, you don't get any mention at all," she said.

Taking Care of the State's Resources
One of the state's tasks is to take care of its resources. "We're really lucky to have the base of resources we have," she said. "Soil, lots of water, relatively few environmental problems, a food-producing capability that is the envy of many places, natural resources valuable not only for their agricultural potential but also for their recreational potential and for the 'refreshing your soul' potential," Scofield said.

The state's resources also include its human resources. Nebraskans are inventive, she said. Many times, the most creative inventions don't come from universities, but from someone trying to make his business better, she said.

"We ought to encourage that kind of innovation and help people start new businesses," she said. "If anybody is going to come up with a new gadget that solves energy issues, I'd put my money on some farmer who's trying to cut his costs."