Why Do Some Towns Thrive? and Other Questions

Rural sociologists got together recently to talk about ethanol, migration, Obama -- and what it takes to be a thriving small town.

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Are ethanol plants important for the economic future of small towns?

When Appalachians move away from the mountains and then return, where do they return to? If you leave, can you go home again?

When city folks move out of the city, where do they go?

And some small towns seem to make while others don’t. Why is that? What is it about towns, or the people who live there, that make some places thrive and others fade?

The Rural Sociological Society meets annually and for a few days its members talk about the research they’ve been doing in rural communities over the last year. I went to this year’s meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, and dipped in and out of rooms to listen to talks about everything from how  broadband can benefit small communities to how breastfeeding practices change from region to region. 

Some of the most interesting discussions were about the role of ethanol in the economies of Midwestern towns — and the increasing corn monoculture in parts of the Great Plains. There was also a lively debate about how the Obama Administration was approaching rural issues — the jury has yet to return a verdict on this one — and how the New York Times continues to show an anti-rural bias in some of its reports and editorials. There was also a great deal of talk about why some rural towns thrive. It turns out that thriving towns make their own fun and they encourage newcomers to join in. It’s not a question of money. Thriving towns have thriving cultures.

Here is a sampling of what I heard:

• A survey of rural Pennsylvania kids who had graduated from a rural high school found that more than two-thirds said their “ideal” place to live was a town of about 12,000 people. It appears that many rural youth do want to live in small communities.

• Terry Besser at Iowa State University, who has been studying the characteristics of thriving small towns, asked people to assess their communities.

She found that more jobs and higher incomes “do not translate into higher quality of life.”

Areas where residents believe their community is thriving have more participation in local groups. In these places, there’s a sense there that people would get behind projects and get them done.

Thriving places were more remote. They weren’t exurbs, close to metro areas. As a result, the places where people were happier had lower average incomes. They weren’t the smallest towns. In very small towns, people burned out working on their communities. Communities of at least 5,000 residents “have an advantage over those 1,500 and below,” Besser said.

Exquisitely Bored in Nacogdoches
Here is what the Kay Theater in Rockdale, Texas, looked like in 2006, before volunteers raised the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to restore the post-World War II building.

Towns where people were less happy and less satisfied were closer to cities. They were places where residents commuted longer distances to work (most likely to that nearby city). Incomes were higher because people were earning city wages, but there was a sense that “people were just living in a place.” There was less community. 

Besser said her research had found that community involvement was essential for people to think of their town as thriving. And community involvement rose as towns became more remote. “You may have less income if you’re more remote, but you will have more connections,” she said.

•A team from Mississippi State University has been studying migration patterns within the U.S. They found that rural areas were losing people to metro counties. Metro counties, however, were losing people to suburban and exurban counties. So city folks are moving out of central cities as rural people are moving in. Weird.

• Why have people moved to small towns in far western Nebraska? Cheryl Burkhart-Kriesel at the University of Nebraska asked. The most frequent answer was a search for a simpler way of life, followed closely by a desire for less congestion and closer ties with relatives. Only a third of the people said they moved to take a higher paying job. The attraction of the region was a “slower way of life.”

• Doug Smith at Western Kentucky University worked with interviews with people who left Appalachian Kentucky and then returned between the mid-1950s and the mid-‘90s. Smith found that 86% of the people who came back to the Appalachian region returned to their home counties — and 45% lived within one mile of what they considered their “homeplace.” People who were divorced were less likely to return to their home county — a finding that opens up all kinds of speculation about family relations!

There were several sessions over the weekend about ethanol and its effects on both communities and agriculture:

•David Peters at Iowa State University said the bankruptcy of ethanol production facilities would lead to a “substantial loss of jobs” in the communities where those plants are operating. The most important federal policy to ethanol production is the requirement that the country produce 15 billion gallons a year by 2015. If that requirement is abandoned, Peters said, it would “eliminate the domestic ethanol industry.”

• Cynthia White, at St. Norbert College, noted that the concentration of ethanol production in the U.S. has declined. The top four firms used to control more than 70% of all ethanol production; today, the top four firms produce about 35% of the fuel. “Compared to other grain sectors, ethanol is not that concentrated,” White said.

• Cornelia Flora at Iowa State disagreed with Peters, saying she had yet to see data showing that communities depended on ethanol production for a substantial portion of their jobs or income. She said large-scale ethanol production promoted a “monoculture” that was bad for farms and for communities. “The higher the increase in corn production, the higher the outmigration,” Flora said, “and the higher the number of kids in free or reduced lunch programs.”

• Farmers agreed with Flora. J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., interviewed farmers and found that most thought that the move toward greater crop specialization was bad for farmers and farm communities. Only 19% of those farmers interviewed agreed that greater specialization in crops or farm products — corn, chickens, hogs — had benefited farmers. Arbuckle said the “root of the problem” in farm communities wasn’t ethanol, but the heavy reliance on single commodities. Iowa had become a “corn republic,” exporting  money and nutrients to the detriments of farmers and farm communities. He said communities would thrive if they adopted “value added, differentiated production. Unless that happens very little is going to change.”

 

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