Darrin Williams: Rural America Matters

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 89 views 

Editor’s note: Darrin Williams is CEO of Southern Bancorp Inc. and serves as a State Representative for House District 36 in Little Rock.

In January, I had the opportunity to write about a volunteer program with which Southern Bancorp has been heavily involved for the past decade.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, also known as VITA, is an IRS-sponsored, rural-focused, volunteer program that offers free tax preparation and filing assistance to income eligible individuals and families.

Nearly 50 Southern Bancorp volunteers recently wrapped up the tax season, and the results were record-breaking. Our volunteers filed nearly 3,000 federal tax returns, bringing more than $6 million in refunds and credits back to the rural communities we serve. This accomplishment is not only exciting because of the impact that such an influx of money can have on a rural community, but it also affords us an opportunity to raise and refocus attention on this vital, yet increasingly threatened part of America.

Each passing year, rural America faces increased challenges. From population decline and economic development obstacles to an overall lack of access to growth capital, each challenge digs the proverbial hole deeper. And in Arkansas, where according to the most recent census data over 80 percent of the counties are considered rural, we’re talking about an increasingly large hole.

And while we cannot fix every problem in every rural community, we can begin to chip away at a few of the bigger problems. In Southern’s case, this starts with improving financial access so that capitalism can work for all people by creating jobs and economic opportunities.

Programs like VITA infuse a community with new resources, but they are once-a-year activities. In order to fully address the long-term growth capital needs of rural communities, we need more consistent and sustainable forms of investment.

One of the core tenants of Southern’s community development work is the belief that capitalism can and should work for people in rural America.

But capitalism does not operate in a vacuum. It relies on an infrastructure that can deliver capital to entrepreneurs, businesses, and individuals in a responsive and responsible way, something community development banks like Southern know how to do. Access to responsive and responsible financial services is consistently cited as one of the leading factors in determining a community’s economic vitality. And with the number of banks and bank branches plummeting, that access is dwindling.

Without a strong financial institution with which to partner, those in need of capital will often turn to predatory lenders who charge exorbitant rates and lock customers into a never ending cycle of debt that offers little chance of relief, much less the kind of financial access that leads to home purchases, educational financing, or business creation.

As other banks migrate toward more urban areas, Southern is exploring ways to serve even more of rural communities. We’re looking to expand our services to places that traditional banks will often overlook or pass by because they focus on higher growth markets.

So why are we doing this? And why should you care?

Because the vitality and prosperity of our state is not determined by one metro area or one geographic location – each part of the state needs to be able to contribute. In states like Arkansas and Mississippi, where Southern operates, the vitality of rural communities will drive the future of the whole state.

This is why I encourage you to think about how your company can invest in rural America. Whether through participation in one-time programs such as VITA, considering one of Arkansas’ rural communities for your business’ next location, or joining in Southern’s effort to create new economic opportunities; by working together, we can strengthen these communities and prove that rural really does matter.