Having a large numbers of stores doesn't mean a rural area has much choice — unless you want a hamburger or your hair done.
Recently at the grocery store I was behind an elderly woman in the checkout line who appeared more than a little upset.
The checker looked at her, smiled, and then made the mistake of asking, “Did you find everything you needed?” The woman responded quickly, “No, I did not. When did you stop carrying name brands? I came in here to get two cans of del Monte® green beans to make my green bean casserole, and all you have are store brands! Where are the del Monte® green beans?”
The checker mumbled something about late deliveries and being sold out. The customer wasn’t buying the excuses. “Well, you are NEVER sold out of the store brands, and I WILL NOT use the store brands!” The checker went on to tell her how much cheaper the store brands are, and how they are a “better buy.” This lady wasn’t having any of that. “OH, NO THEY ARE NOT! They are not as good. I am NOT buying the store brands. I decide what goes into my green bean casserole, not you,” she said, pointing a very deliberate finger at the checker.
Everything she said was right. The consumer should decide what goes into her green bean casserole, not the grocery store. Consumers want choices. However, this can be real problem in the rural areas where typically we have fewer services available and may be forced to accept what is easily accessible, especially if we are unable to travel to larger urban markets.
With that in mind I decided to take a closer look at my community. I live in Overton, Texas, population 2,377. Overton is fairly typical of small towns — the population is older (median age 38), most people own and live in their homes (70%), 14% of the families live below poverty level, and the employment rate is about 58%.
My question is, if we want to use local services what do we have here and how many function without competition? To get a count on the number and type of services I used the City of Overton’s web page. According to this, there are 57 businesses broken into 30 categories from air conditioning repair to video stores.
According to one federal study of rural consumer markets in 2000, any area with over 40 types of businesses is considered “well served.” By that measure, Overton is slightly better than “well served.” However, of the 30 categories of services, 16 are represented by a single business. That means that 53% of all businesses have no local competition. The categories with the largest varieties of business are beauty shops (10.5%) and restaurants (8.7%). In terms of access and choice, Overton is a great place to get a hamburger and a hair cut, but what about other services?
Our federal researchers (Paul Frenzen and Tim Parker) identified two tiers of services in rural markets nationwide. The first tier — banks, grocery stores, and eating and drinking places — were found in every rural market. The second tier — gas stations, drug stores, doctor’s offices, hospitals, hardware stores, florists and beauty shops — were found in 90% of all rural markets. Overton stacks up pretty well against these findings. It has two banks, one grocery store, and five restaurants. It also boasts three gas stations, one drug store, two doctor’s offices, a hardware store, a florist, and six beauty shops.
While this is none too shabby, looking only at basic services, the picture starts to change. I defined basic services as banks, medical services, housing, food and fuel. Fifteen providers offer these services in Overton (approximately 25% of all businesses) and of these, five (33%) have no competition, including food and the majority of medical services.
At this point, I have to seriously disagree with Frenzen and Parker. When you look at the type and number of basic services, Overton is not well served. Sure, consumers can commute to other markets, but this becomes more problematic as people grow older. And travel to more distant markets raises the overall cost of living for those of us who live in the rural areas.
These problems are not exclusive to Overton. They are symptomatic of rural areas nationwide. Rural America faces many issues, including increasing poverty and unemployment, “aging in place,” and a continuing decline in services. Available services frequently have little or no competition, thereby limiting consumer choice. In addition, many are small, locally owned businesses, very few of which succeed over the long term, adding to the fluidity of the economic landscape.
Perhaps these days there is little motivation to preserve or rebuild the rural areas. We live in a post-industrial society where the majority of jobs are in the service sector and located in urban areas. Compounding this with international trade agreements, such as the specter of importing poultry products from China, perhaps there seems little enthusiasm to re-develop rural areas. Meanwhile, those of us living in rural places find ourselves at an increasing disadvantage as jobs and services disappear and we are forced to take what we can get and not quibble over the details.
Considering what we do for this nation we deserve better. Think on that the next time you pick up a can of del Monte® green beans.
Dr. Kelley Snowden resides in Overton, Texas, where she lives with her husband on the Kilgore College Demonstration Farm. She is an adjunct professor in geography at Stephen F. Austin State University and also teaches at the University of Texas at Tyler.