This being the 4th of July, I thought it would be worthwhile to post one of the best rural pieces I have read in my time at the Center for Rural Affairs (almost a year… wow). While I have worked here, I have had many people assume that the Center for Rural Affairs works only on farm and agricultural issues. We do spend a lot of time on those issues, but our mission is to advocate for all rural people and all rural places- especially the Great Plains region, where we began and where we work and live today. The following excerpt explains why.
This comes from the introduction of Trampled Dreams: The Neglected Economy of the Rural Great Plains (pdf link), a report on condition of the rural economy in our six-state region, published seven years ago. It was written by Jon Bailey, current director of the Rural Research and Analysis Program at the Center for Rural Affairs, and it is as relevant today as it was seven years ago. The themes within are ones that I hope to explore at greater length in the future, and I hope I can do so with the same eloquence and insight as Jon. While this excerpt has a quite serious tone, I should say the unflagging determination and faith exhibited in rural communities- especially the ones we call home- give all of us at the Center for Rural Affairs great hope for the future of rural America. And we may be serious, but we have a lot of fun doing what we do. Have a great holiday, thanks for reading our blog, and we’ll dive back into the 2007 Farm Bill very soon.
(Rural America) is the place left behind. It is dying on the vine, a victim of strangulation by social, political, and economic neglect. That neglect is propelling us, gradually but powerfully, toward national human disaster.
U.S. Senator James Abourezk (South Dakota), 1973
America has long celebrated its rural places and its rural people. The Jeffersonian ideal of an agrarian society built upon the toil of its “chosen people” – the yeoman farmers – has long been a cornerstone of American society. While the Hamiltonian ideal of a centralized government located in an urbanized, industrialized society has largely won the battle of political philosophies, we enshrine and build monuments to Thomas Jefferson, the voice of and the advocate for rural America.
While the Jeffersonian idea of numerous family farmers supporting and supported by small town shopkeepers never materialized nationally, it did take root in one area of the nation for a period of time that continues in some respect today. Urbanization and industrialization quickly came to the East; the South was the province of large plantations worked by slaves and sharecroppers; the West, the empire of federally subsidized irrigation, became the domain of large agricultural operations and urban destinations. Only the Great Plains of the Midwest witnessed the development of family farms and small towns over an extended period.
The Great Plains region was settled by dreamers. The men and women who developed the farms, ranches and rural communities of the Great Plains dreamed of escaping the oppressive political systems of foreign nations and the bleak economic systems of industrial America. They dreamed of creating something of their own – a farm, a ranch, a store, a business – and they found the opportunity in the wide-open spaces and rich soils of this region.
The dreams of those people largely came true. They built an agricultural system that is the envy of the world. They built a public education system that is recognized as the best in the United States. They built a society of personal, civic, and public institutions that has become the stereotype of America (the “Midwesterner”). And for much of the region, they were the personification of the Jeffersonian ideal.
But dreams are often gossamer, and can be trampled upon in an instant. Many of the ancestors of those who sought to build a better life free of political oppression and economic deprivation are now living in poverty without any apparent political strength. In a stunning reversal of the stereotype of poverty, the three poorest counties in the nation are in rural Nebraska, and 18 of the poorest 50 counties in the nation, are agriculturally-based counties in Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota.
The economic disparity of many residents of the region are found in other measures. For example, four states in the region – Minnesota, North Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska – are the only states in the nation where 10 percent or more of the workforce has more than one job. This suggests that many rural residents of the region are cobbling together two or more jobs to make ends meet during a time of unparalleled national economic prosperity.
To claim, however, that the economic situation facing rural areas of the region is simply one part of the nation missing out on the nation’s economic prosperity misses part of the point. The most troubling aspect of this rural economic disparity in the region is its persistence. In previous studies examining data from 1969 to 1986, we found that rural areas of the region had significantly lower incomes and significantly higher rates of poverty than did non-rural areas of the region.
The economic distress faced by these rural areas are chronic and longstanding. While the periodic economic crises facing agriculture are of great importance to this region and its communities, the economic distress facing rural communities of the region is, as Osha Gray Davidson stated in Broken Heartland, “no more a farm crisis than the Boston Tea Party was the result of a tax crisis. The troubles in America’s Heartland are symptoms of much larger problems in our society.”