Finding a New Rural America

Old Rural is dead or dying. But there is a New Rural there for the communities that can find a way.

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Will the 2010 Census be the one that marks the end of any state being predominantly rural?

According to the 2000 Census, we are down to just four states where the majority of the population lives outside metropolitan areas. (That is as close as the Census now gets to rural, even though there are real problems with that definition.) They are Vermont, Mississippi, and West Virginia, plus Maine.  

The first three have always been majority rural; Maine became majority urban in 1950 and then flipped back to majority rural. If we go back 50 years, to 1960, 19 states were majority rural.

But not all rural areas are in decline.  Bend, Oregon; Tupelo, Mississippi; and Miner County, South Dakota, are all rural regions that have overcome their economic ghosts.  

Bend was a regional center dominated by the timber industry and several major saw mills.  Tupelo was a market town surrounded by cotton fields. Miner County was a classic Midwestern area dominated by row-crop agriculture. During the 20th Century, all three were dying.  All were defined by their pasts, not by their futures.

Today, each is prospering in its own, unique way.  Tupelo has been engaged in the reinvention process for over 60 years—from cotton, to dairies, to upholstered furniture, to healthcare and car manufacturing.  

Bend’s transition from lumber production to a diversified retirement and tourism economy began in the 1970s. Today it is one of the most successful examples of that transition in the U.S. 

Miner County began its transition in 1996 when a group of high school students decided to conduct a “community cash-flow” study, to better understand why the last local grocery store was closing and what they could do about it. That led to the creation of a non-profit that became the champion of a new direction. 

Today Howard, the county seat, has more jobs than people. It is home of a major wind turbine repair facility and other new, non-ag enterprises. Have these transitions been good for everyone? No, but they have been better for a clear majority who were also willing to change. There are other examples of rural re-creation spread throughout America.

Who Should Care?

Why should the approximately 80% of urban Americans care about the approximately 20% of us who live in rural areas?  

Community Development Foundation
Tupelo, Mississippi, has been re-inventing itself for the past 60 years. Much of that work is carried on by the Community Development Foundation, headquartered in this building.
Richard Florida argues that America is better off if we all live in mega cities, and rural becomes a thing of the past.  

Frank and Deborah Popper, in their 1987 paper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” suggested that much of the geographic middle of the U.S. had returned to population densities lower than those 100 years earlier; it was time to return the region to the buffalo.  

Bruce Katz and others at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution propose that investing primarily in the 100 largest metro areas is the way to make America stronger, especially economically and intellectually.  

One of the advantages of getting older is that it gives one time to gain some perspective.  In my lifetime I have watched New York City be rescued by a federal bailout in 1978 and then recover. Now it is Detroit.  

I have seen New Orleans under water and then seen people all over the world help with the recovery. Spokane has hosted a World’s Fair and almost gone bankrupt in a few decades, only to now be one of the best places to live in America.  I’ve watched places with research universities, international airports, and interstate highways largely prosper. Those are all publicly funded competitive advantages and the combination is almost exclusively urban.  

Urban prosperity is not simply a product of hard work and smart, creative people. It is also a product of critical public investments.  

Three years after President Ford agreed to the bailout of New York City, John Carpenter provided an alternative view of the urban future in Escape from New York.  Fortunately Ford’s (or Governor Carey’s) vision was fulfilled, not Carpenter’s. Public investments were critical to New York’s growth (the Erie Canal) and to its recovery (the Bailout).  

If much of rural America is to prosper again, we must change the nature and focus of most of non-urban public investments. We must focus investments on creating a better future for all, rather than protecting the past for a few.

Not a Subsidy for Rural Living

But in arguing for a significant change in public investments in rural areas, I want to make one thing clear—this is not an argument for subsidy of people simply because they prefer to live in rural areas.  

No working aged adult deserves a subsidy because they want to live in an urban or rural area, New York City or New York Mills, Minnesota.  Public investments are critical to all regions.  But those public investments must be made strategically.  

There are five reasons why urban people should want rural people and areas to succeed.

•America’s exceptionalism is based, in part, on the concept of equal access to opportunity.  

America’s growth of the last 150 years has been encouraged by public investments in “internal improvements.”  If we can write off rural now, why not write off California or Michigan next?  What about where you live?  Why not write off people defined by age, race, or education?  

We have done that in the past, but it has not served America well.  Economic segregation by our pattern of public investments and thus access to opportunity, will, in the long term, retard the entire country. 

J. Stephen Conn
Entering Howard, South Dakota, on South Dakota 34.
•Do we wish to curse rural people with poverty and poor education?  

That is starting to happen in some rural (and urban) parts of America.  We are unintentionally turning to a situation where prosperity is largely urban and subsistence is increasingly rural.  Rural ghettos are no better than urban ones.  Unfortunately, some current federal rural policy makes this worse, rather than better.  And if rural opportunity continues to contract, many of those poor and under-educated people will move to urban areas.

•Do you want to live with the population concentration or sprawl that Florida and Katz suggest?  

The mega city we are rapidly developing will clearly be a better life for some.  Look at Tokyo, London and Sydney.  But what if your mega city looks more like Mexico City, Shanghai, or Sao Paulo?  Don’t assume that urban = better quality of life; sometimes it does and sometimes it does not.

•There is an old rural saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”  

As Japan’s recent tragedy so clearly demonstrates, no one can predict the future.  The world faces many challenges, some we are not yet aware of.  America will do a better job of balancing risk if we disperse opportunity, and thus, population.  This will require regional approaches and more intentional linkages between urban and rural areas.

•Almost all of America’s water and much of its food and fiber come from rural regions of the US.  

For rural regions to produce what America needs, America must support rural opportunities.  But in the future, those opportunities must be different, focused on constantly creating competitive advantage rather than simply protecting old advantages. 

Old Rural and New

One thing we know: population means votes, which means political influence.  Rural areas have held onto some political power, especially in the Senate and key committees in the House.  But political influence is more complicated than just urban and rural; it is also about how the future is  different from the past.

Dan Morgan, in his excellent paper The Farm Bill and Beyond, outlines the typology of “Old Ag” verses “New Ag.” 

Old Ag is largely about protecting the status quo supported by many of the major farm groups and commodity organizations.  New Ag is a combination of grassroots farmer and food organizations and environmental groups that challenge the status quo with a vision of agriculture as producing positive environmental benefits and healthier diets.  

To oversimplify:

Old Ag Concentrated production in a few crops or animals. Increased efficiency of production—cheap is good. Public policy to protect existing advantages. Declining employment base. Protection of wealth rather than expansion.

New Ag Diverse production of integrated crops and animals. Quality over cheap. Public policy to encourage new competitive advantages. Reward farmers for positive environmental benefits. Expand economic opportunity and wealth.

The Old vs. New Ag tension needs some historical context.  For much of the first half of the twentieth century, the debate was between “Prosperity Ag” vs. “Subsistence Ag.”  Prosperity Ag, with lots of help from the federal government and key institutions like land grant universities, won. 

Prosperity Ag has largely evolved into Old Ag. And often those in Old Ag see New Ag as a return to subsistence, though others would disagree.  For a powerful subset of rural communities and individuals, Old Ag still works. It is difficult to convince those “winners” to give up a successful known for a risky unknown. But as the population data show, the number of winners under Old Ag gets smaller every decade.  

Much of Old Ag’s power is based on the myth that most rural people make their living in agriculture. This myth haunts rural America.  

Agriculture provides slightly more than 5% of the jobs in rural America; 82% of family farm income comes from sources off the farm. There are parts of the U.S. where agriculture is dominant, but in much less of the nation than 50 years ago. Focusing on agriculture, especially Old Ag, ignores the vast majority of rural people and communities.

One other misunderstanding damages rural communities: that Urban America subsidizes Rural America.  

This myth once again came to the surface in a recent exchange between Ezra Klein of the Washington Post and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.  Bill Bishop, in his excellent follow-up to the Vilsack-Klein debate in the Daily Yonder, showed that rural counties lag behind urban areas in federal per capita expenditures three years out of five. If you look at community development spending, rural counties are behind four out of five years. 

To extend Morgan’s concept, we can also talk about a continuum of “Old Rural” to “New Rural”  rather than a division.  

Old Rural is largely about protecting regionally dominant enterprises that produce single commodities, often with federal and state government support and protection (coal, timber, commodity crops, low-skill, low-wage manufacturing, etc.), increasing the amount, but often not the distribution of wealth.  

Old Rural is about smokestack chasing, incentivizing the temporary relocation of businesses looking for ever cheaper places.  

Old Rural is often about very limited connectivity between urban and rural.

New Rural is intentionally about broad connectivity.  New Rural is about helping regional efforts to build diverse, evolving competitive advantage that grows the amount and distribution of wealth.

Again, to oversimplify, here’s the continuum:

Old Rural Areas dominated by a single, defining economic sector that sets the expectations for wages and education. Commodity production with downward price pressure from globalization. Income and education levels falling behind national averages. Declining population based on declining economic opportunity. Cheap is good, cheaper must be better.  

Old Rural communities and regions are haunted by what they used to be rather than being energized by what they should be.

New Rural Regional approaches to diverse economies based on continual creation of competitive advantage. Broad linkages to urban and global economies seen as critical strategies. Recruit entrepreneurs and immigrants, not low-wage manufacturing. Quality of Life is critical. Environmental quality an asset to be protected, not expended.

Support of New Ag does not insure support of New Rural. Support of Old Ag does insure support of Old Rural. When policies are formulated, we need to be sure which outcome we want and for whom. Because of the great growth in agricultural and forestry productivity (often with government assistance), Old Ag and Old Rural provide living wage jobs for fewer and fewer rural people. Globalization of the last few decades has made this even more so.

Can Old Rural be the base from which New Rural emerges?  

It is possible, but unlikely. In cooperation with local and regional partners, groups like the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities are experimenting with this transition in various parts of the U.S.  But one of the lessons of the last thirty years is that Old Rural too often sees change as the enemy, rather than as a source of opportunity.  

Unfortunately, most of our rural-serving public institutions depend on the political might of Old Rural to survive.  Because the rural crisis in America is largely glacial rather than tsunamic, it is hard for people and institutions to see the need and direction to change before it is too late.  The change from Old to New is happening in a few places, but those are the exceptions.   

If your children and grandchildren must leave to find prosperity, then your approach is failing. Under Old Rural, many children have to leave. New Rural represents the potential of greater opportunity, the potential of a future that would keep our kids at home. That it is not guaranteed. It is, however, entirely possible.

(Part Two of Karl Stauber’s re-envisioning of rural America will be published in tomorrow’s edition of The Daily Yonder.)

Karl Stauber is president and CEO of the Danville (VA) Regional Foundation.

 

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