Agricultural Economics Department


Date of this Version



Published by the Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Copyright 2010 Regents of the University of Nebraska.


Those who work with rural communities know this issue well: Population losses have left many rural communities with a shortage of residents willing and able to take on the public and volunteer leadership roles required to keep their communities running smoothly. As a result, individuals are often asked not just to participate in local government and voluntary organizations, but also to accept positions of authority and responsibility in their operation. The outcome, according to conventional wisdom, is that capable and involved citizens can be “burned out” by the demands made on their time, with local leadership often being left in the hands of a few individuals. This phenomenon, it is argued, can foster apathy and limit innovation, especially in rural communities where many public services are essentially run by volunteers.

While the availability of individuals to fill leadership roles is likely to be a concern for any rural community, it appears to be especially problematic in the Great Plains. Consider local government, defined here as the sum of all counties, cities and special districts (e.g. fire districts, cemetery districts, resource districts, etc.). Nationally, the United States Bureau of the Census counted 89,476 such governmental entities in 2007, or one for every 2,278 U.S. residents.