If We Let Rural America Die, We Shall Lose a Piece of Ourselves

The little town of New England, N.D.,
squats on the Great Plains of
America’s heartland, its homes and
schools framed by the mammoth
grain elevators that soar above the
featureless landscape.

By Joel Kotkin Washington Post

Founded in
1909 by German immigrants and
migrants from the Northeast who
joined the great rush to the wide open
spaces, this was a bustling place a
half-century ago, a community of 1,200 that personified the boom of American
agriculture and the robustness of rural America. But when I visited earlier this
year, there was little of New England’s one-time flourish left. Many of the
storefronts had been boarded up. The Catholic school has closed, and the public
school is slowly emptying, its former student body of 350 reduced to 220 and
expected to drop to 140 within five years. "There’s almost nothing left," Glenn
Giese, director of the Grant /Hettinger County Job Development Authority told
me. "You look at the graduating class and there’s only 30 students. The whole
place has pretty much dried up."

In the shadow of the silos, this small town has become little more than a shadow
of itself, symbolizing the deepening failures of American agriculture — hastened
by factors such as the industrialization of farming and the loss of key markets to
developing countries — and the steady forfeiture of a quintessentially American
way of life and of being, a loss that threatens, unless it is reversed, to diminish
us all.

Carbon copies of New England dot the rural landscape, from the hillsides of
Pennsylvania to the Colorado plains. Today, much of rural America has become
what Karl Stauber, president of the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul,
Minn., has called a "rural ghetto," its communities and small towns losing jobs
and people and wealth. As they face the prospect of long-term, permanent
decline, some voices are urging us to write off our centuries-old rural experiment.
Two New York academics, Frank and Debra Popper, have even suggested that
the federal government accelerate the depopulation of the entire Great Plains
region and turn it into a vast "Buffalo Commons," a refuge for large mammals,
hikers and a reviving Native American population.

But giving up on rural America would be a big mistake. The effects of the
heartland’s decline may not be readily apparent, but they touch the entire country
— economically, environmentally, socially and culturally.

On the negative side, the flight from rural America contributes to the sprawl
choking many of our great metropolitan areas, as poor people from the Plains,
the Rio Grande Valley or central Pennsylvania settle not in densely populated
urban cores, but on the peripheries of cities such as Minneapolis, Dallas or
Philadelphia. On the positive side, rural areas provide social and economic
diversity to a country that, in many places, seems made up of identically molded
suburban pods, places where traditional crafts, native plants and even historical
uniqueness no longer exist. And in an intangible way, rural areas project a
different notion of America, in their incubation of traditional values regarding
community, country, church and the nobility of work.

Rural America, in sum, represents something different from the larger nation,
showing us what we once were and may still want somehow to remain. Saving it
is vital; the question is how.

Decline, depopulation and a slow passing are not inevitable. They can be
forestalled and reversed by a change in policy — a change that seeks to
reinvigorate rural areas not by subsidizing existing economies and elites but by
finding ways to lure new energies and industries, and to encourage the most
energetic local population, particularly young people, to remain.

A good place to start is at the federal level, with a change in Washington’s
system of subsidies and transfer payments, which have drained rural
communities of most of the spirit of innovation and self-sufficiency that
characterized them in their pioneer days. Instead of remaining ruggedly
self-reliant, as most Americans think of them, they increasingly depend, like the
much-disdained urban ghettos, on their own forms of welfare — farm subsidies,
Social Security, grants to Native Americans — to survive.

In 2001 alone, the nation spent $25 billion on direct subsidies to farmers, with
billions more spent to subsidize water and power suppliers in various regions.
The farm bill approved by Congress this session guarantees an even heavier
expenditure over the next decade. These payments should be gradually
supplanted with other initiatives — targeted venture funds, development grants and
assistance for building technical infrastructure — that will help restore both the
vitality and self-respect of these communities.

Massive federal aid to agriculture began in the 1930s, when "dust bowl"
conditions on the Great Plains led to a great migration out of the heartland to
rural California, Arizona and the Pacific Northwest. Over time, however,
dependence on subsidies to save rural communities has spawned conditions that
undermine the creation of an economic future, by sapping those communities of
the motivation to take risks, invest and build new businesses. Subsidies also
have the perverse effect of flowing largely to those least likely to bring change to
rural communities, enriching elderly residents and out-of-state investors, who
often have little interest in reinventing the local economy.

The ironic result is increasing impoverishment. After more than a half-century of
subsidies and anti-poverty efforts, rural America suffers a higher concentration of
poor people than urban areas. Rural residents, who may enjoy lower housing
costs but have greater energy, telecommunications and transportation burdens,
make barely 70 percent of the salaries earned by their urban counterparts, and
more than one in five rural children now live in poverty. This extreme distress is
spread across the American countryside. Eastern Kentucky is worse off relative
to the rest of state than it was at the beginning of the early 1960s War on
Poverty. Rural Mississippi and Arkansas continue to lag far behind both the
metropolitan areas of their states and the nation.

The rural Southwest now constitutes one of the nation’s most extended regions
of poverty; four of the nation’s 10 poorest counties can be found in the area
stretching from rural Texas to California’s San Joaquin Valley. And much of it
remains a kind of feudal economy, with a large, increasingly Hispanic laboring
class presided over by a small, often self-satisfied Anglo elite. There is little
pressure, argues James George, the provost at California State University,
Bakersfield, for agricultural interests, which enjoy massive subsidies for their
water, to make any substantial changes in the community. "The valley is like a
Third World country. We’re Nigeria," he says.

A somewhat different, but equally pervasive decline grips large parts of the
nation’s agricultural heartland, which receives the bulk of farm subsidies and
other federal largess. Poverty is less pervasive, largely due to the massive
out-migration of young people. Instead there are listless economies and an
overwhelming sense of impending, inevitable demise.

Some champions of rural America, such as Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and
Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), believe changes at the federal level could reinvigorate
areas such as the Great Plains. They have proposed a new Homestead Act,
modeled on the original 1862 legislation that spurred settlement of the frontier.
This new effort, however, concentrates on the broader economy through such
provisions as setting up venture capital funds and providing tax credits and other
incentives that might bring entrepreneurs, including returnees from the
metropolis, to rural America.

This is not as fanciful a notion as it might seem. Two major factors could provide
hope for a new approach to rural revitalization: sociological changes that are
leading individuals and companies to reconsider rural locations, and new
telecommunications technology that allows such communities to participate in
the global information economy.

There are some signs that there may be a small counterbalance forming to the
steady movement of residents out of small rural communities to larger
metropolitan ones. According to the 2000 Census, the largest shift in the nation’s
white population over the previous decade was to rural areas, particularly small
towns on the fringes of large cities. The number of whites moving there grew by
70 percent, while suburban households grew by only about half that. Much of this
growth, according to demographer William Frey, has taken place in the
not-too-remote regions of the Intermountain West and the South, to what could
be called "meatloaf" communities — comforting small towns that boast local
recreational and cultural assets such as universities, antique districts, artists’
colonies or ski resorts.

It would probably take more to bring settlers to and keep younger people in more
isolated communities such as New England, N.D., and other less well-favored
agricultural areas. The key here lies in retaining what are increasingly rural
America’s most important assets: its distinctive quality of life and its young
people. The Great Plains today are a kind of "brain belt," boasting one of the
nation’s highest levels of literacy and scholastic achievement, with Minnesota,
North and South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas almost invariably ranking
at or near the top in national science test scores and in bachelor’s degrees per

The problem has been that most of these talented young people move away. Yet
in the few areas where they have chosen to settle in the Plains, the results
suggest the long-term potential of the region. Some communities are showing
remarkable signs of life. Fargo, N.D., whose population grew 20 percent in the
1990s, also enjoyed robust wage growth and, critically, saw its populations of
young people ages 20 to 34 and those under 17 rise by roughly 10 percent.

This year, a Forbes magazine study identified Sioux Falls, Iowa City, Bismarck
and Fargo as among the 25 best smaller cities for high-tech companies. These
areas have spawned a series of successful technology firms, from Gateway
Computers to Great Plains Software, as well as a large array of smaller start-up
companies. Although these burgeoning communities are no longer really rural,
they help prop up the economies of the surrounding rural areas and help keep
younger people and their families close to home. "There’s more opportunity here
now," notes Mike Chambers, founder of Aldevron, a Fargo-based biotechnology
firm. "People are starting to stay."

Entrepreneurs such as Chambers believe that advances in telecommunications
technology could eventually allow firms such as his to provide some work to the
smaller communities in the Great Plains. Already, some of Fargo’s larger firms
"farm" work out to smaller communities and even to contractors on isolated
ranches. Doug Burgum, the executive widely credited with developing Great
Plains Software into a major powerhouse, grew up in Arthur, a farming
community of 400 some 30 miles from Fargo, and believes such places could
become small hubs of new economic activity. "You look ahead and you can see
the possibilities of a lot of vibrant communities in these places," Burgum told me.
"You have a low cost of living, a great quality of life — there’s a population that
wants to be there but can still participate in cutting-edge, substantial work."

Some smaller companies, such as Killdeer Mountain Manufacturing, also have
seen the advantage of such rural-based development. Headquartered in a small
town at the edge of the North Dakota badlands, Killdeer was founded in 1988 by
a native son who returned from nearly two decades in Arizona. The firm now
employs more than 140 people at four locations, making cables and other parts
for aerospace companies. Some of the work is done in communities with barely
100 residents. The company’s long-term vision is to locate 10 plants in similarly
tiny towns across the state, networked together via a high-speed fiberoptics

As these successes suggest, rural America’s vaunted values of self-reliance,
hard work and attention to education still could be potent if unleashed in an
information economy. But the key to transforming this vast and vital region is to
free it from a federally funded culture of dependency that offers only the promise
of continued stagnation and impoverishment — and the loss, for all Americans, of
an irreplaceable piece of the nation’s heritage.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow with the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at
Pepperdine University and the Milken Institute. He is the author of "The New
Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape"
(Random House).

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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