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The drive from St. Joseph to Jefferson City covers 220 miles, with small portions of the journey crossing Missouri's cities and suburbs. No matter the route, most of this drive goes through rolling hills and fields broken up by silos and the occasional water tower.

Current political rhetoric fixates on suburban swing districts, so it's easy for policymakers to forget that most of the counties in the state don't look much like St. Louis or Kansas City. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that half of the population is rural in more than 1,800 American counties.

Characteristics that make small town and rural America so endearing — the modesty and resiliency of its residents — wind up being a huge political liability in this day and age.

As state legislatures convene across the country and a new Congress is sworn in, rural Americans need to shed their customary reserve and make a loud and clear statement to elected officials: We are being left behind.

Ten years after the 2008 recession, national economic data obscures a recovery that has been unevenly distributed across rural and urban areas. The Economic Innovation Group coined the phrase "ruralization of distress." Its data shows that while national prosperity increased since 2008, the number of rural Americans living in what's considered an economically distressed zip code also increased by nearly 1 million.

Last year, companies like Apple and Amazon showed a preference to create jobs in larger cities. Small towns that used to rely on a single manufacturer or two have little chance to compete with the talent pool in coastal areas or tech hubs like Austin, Texas.

Northwest Missouri isn't immune to the challenges.

In our part of the state, the population is older and less affluent than in the rest of Missouri. The average hourly wage in every Northwest Missouri county lagged behind the state average, from $21.36 in Buchanan County to $11.67 in Worth County. Ten of 14 Northwest Missouri counties are projected to lose population or remain stagnant between 2000 and 2030, led by Gentry County with a 30 percent drop and Holt County with an expected 23 percent loss of population.

There is no easy fix, but initiatives like Great Northwest Day at the Capitol provide an important voice for our region in Jefferson City. Advocates for this area outlined key issues for moving rural communities forward, including high-speed broadband access, transportation infrastructure and workforce development.

It's tough to reverse decades of decline. More than anything, those who participate in Great Northwest Day need to make sure state lawmakers don't forget the wide expanse of the state that exists north of Interstate 70.

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— St. Joseph (Missouri) News-Press

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