CSMGEP Profile: Gbenga Ajilore

Reframing Rural

When Gbenga Ajilore started focusing his economic work on rural America, he had a lot to learn.

After all, he was raised “in a nice neighborhood” in Southern California, attending private schools. “Growing up in California, you think rural America is anything east of Vegas, west of Philly,” he quips.

In his current role as a senior adviser in the Office of the Undersecretary for Rural Development with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as in his previous work with the Center for American Progress, Ajilore aims to use what he’s learned to reframe the way people think about rural communities.

“One of the things that I discovered early on is that in the mainstream, we think about rural America incorrectly,” Ajilore says. “We think about it as a monolith that's homogenous, and that's all wrong. And so instead of focusing on policies, we actually need to redefine how we talk about rural America.”

That should start, he says, with dumping the concept of “rural America” in the first place. Rural Alabama, he points out, is very different from rural New York. And even within California, the Central Valley and northern California, while both rural, are vastly different places with vastly different needs.

A large part of Ajilore’s job at USDA, which starts with recommendations on policy but continues through making sure those policies are effectively implemented and measured, is to make clear that “rural is not agriculture and agriculture's not rural,” he says. “If you want to talk about farms, talk about farms. If you want to talk about rural places, talk about rural places. Don't conflate the two.”

The 2016 presidential election sparked a new cultural and academic interest in rural places and the people who live in them, but as the media, politicians, and social scientists — including economists — cast their gaze farther from the big cities where most are located, they weren’t always looking through the right lens. Really understanding rural life, Ajilore says, starts with setting aside long-held assumptions.

“Can we define it differently?” he asks. “Can we define it in a way that actually acknowledges the diversity, and also doesn't talk about it in a deficit frame? We always talk about ‘disadvantaged communities,’ ‘distressed communities.’ These places, people live there. People have good lives there. But we don't first acknowledge their issues and address their issues in a proper way.”

That ability to use precise information to shape good policies is what attracted Ajilore to economics as a student. He entered the University of California, Berkeley as an undergraduate intending to study math, but hungered for something “more grounded” as the concepts grew more abstract. He remained an applied mathematics major but added an additional major in economics and went on to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Claremont Graduate University in California.

He left California to become a professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio, where he started looking more deeply into how race factors into politics and policy, including police spending. As he studied where communities spent their money as an expression of what the people in those communities valued, he got interested in spatial econometrics — observing and tracking how decisions are influenced by neighbors, whether in nearby communities or peer groups.

Then, in 2014, “Ferguson happened,” Ajilore says, referencing the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager, by a white police officer in a suburb of St. Louis. “And I was inspired to do a lot more work on policing.” Not just police spending, as before, but police behavior, including violence and how law enforcement access to militarized goods plays into that. He found, however, that there wasn’t much appetite for his research in economics at the time.

As he prepared for a push toward full professor, Ajilore spent a year as a visiting fellow at the Urban Institute learning about the more qualitative, real-world side of economic research. When it was time to return to Toledo, an opportunity came to work for the Center for American Progress, and he decided to leave academia behind. “I realized,” he says, “I was too far from the policy debate.”

At the Center, he started learning more about rural communities as well as labor market disparities. And then, after the police murder of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis, his expertise from his previous economic work on policing was very much in demand. He was interviewed by news outlets and writing blog posts, suddenly right in the thick of the policy debate.

Having a voice, he discovered, was “weird and exciting,” and he found he could use it in other discourses as well. He started using “jobs day” — the first Friday of every month, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its unemployment numbers — to talk about something different from the changes dominating the conversation around the report. Instead, he highlighted, via graphs on Twitter, what has tended to stay the same: that the Black unemployment rate is persistently twice the white unemployment rate. He became a go-to voice for media coverage of the issue, starting a conversation that he hopes will lead to systemic change.

“That was really exciting, to be able to make a name for myself, to be able to highlight this issue,” he says. “We need to talk about this gap.”

Ajilore shifted to USDA in 2021, and finding untold stories in the numbers is part of the job there, too. When policies are put into place, he works on implementing the changes that are intended, but also in making sure the needs of rural communities are taken into account.

“I always like to say that my job is to stick my nose in other people's businesses and make sure that rural has a voice,” he says.

Ajilore is working to bring all voices to the table within USDA as well. Soon after starting work there, he helped establish an equity commission at the agency to not only identify systemic issues, but also to take active steps to put things right. The commission delivered 32 recommendations earlier this year, in what Ajilore describes as one of his proudest accomplishments.

When he’s not hard at work reframing how economists and policymakers think about rural communities, he’s exploring another landscape: music. The pandemic gave him time to rekindle a love of playing bassoon, a comforting reminder of his childhood but also a helpful way to get through months of lockdown.

“It was a hobby that forced me to be off social media, to be away from TV and just to be in the moment,” he says — and he still assembles his bassoon and learns songs that catch his ear whenever he can. He’s also a runner, and a self-described sports and movie nerd. When he was teaching, he’d sometimes incorporate bits of economic plot lines from pop culture into his courses.

“It never comes off,” he says. “I’m always seeing things from that lens.”


Proust Questionnaire

A salon and parlor game of the 19th century made famous by Marcel Proust’s answers, the Proust Questionnaire (adapted here) gets to the heart of things ...

What’s on your nightstand?
I have a buffalo plush (a gift from my son from the Connecticut Zoo) and my iPad to listen to music at night.

What job would you like to have if you weren’t an economist?
I would be 2nd bassoon in a city’s symphony orchestra.

What is an ideal day? 
Pretty simple: a walk in a park on a beautiful spring or fall day. Maybe a visit to one of Washington, D.C.’s many free museums.

What trait do you deplore in other people? 
I deplore when people have an expectation on your behavior and then get upset when your actions don’t fit within that expectation.

What trait do you most admire in people? 
I admire passion in people. I like when people have a strong and informed belief in an issue and a willingness to fight for it.

What historical figure do you most admire?
Mr. Rogers is someone who was always on the right side of history, and when he wasn’t, he made sure to update his show to rectify his error.

What is your favorite extravagance?
My favorite extravagance would be sleeping. I never pass up an opportunity to sleep in (dating back to my childhood).

What is your worst habit?
Probably fast food, including fast casual. I’ve ordered the same meal from Chipotle about once a week over the last 10 years.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I would love to be able to play music by ear. To be able to hear a tune and then have the ability to replicate it on any instrument.

Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman? 
Neither I prefer Sadie Alexander.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done? 
There are three things that I would classify as the hardest things I’ve done: 1) Completing my Ph.D., 2) The decision to give up tenure, 3) Running my first marathon.