Monday, January 14, 2013

Rural America's record-low share of U.S. population means fewer opportunities in many rural places

"When the top cheerleader for rural America has some harsh words for the people he represents, it might be time to take notice," Christopher Doering of the Gannett Washington Bureau reports for the Des Moines Register, in a look at rural America and rural Iowa in the wake of the recent rural-relevancy comments by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and small-town mayor.

Vilsack cited Congress's failure to pass a Farm Bill as evidence of the decline of rural political influence, but Doering got comments from farmers such as Justin Dammann, who raises corn, soybeans and cattle in Iowa's southwest corner. "We have less power as a vote, but as far as relevancy, we are more relevant today than we’ve ever been,” he said. “I kind of question if he's not just trying to get us fired up.”

But official South Dakota demographer Michael McCurry told Doering he has a hard time arguing with Vilsack when he looks at rural America's record-low share of the population, 16 percent. Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political pundit, told the reporter that legislators with large rural constituencies need to remind urbanitres that “their fates are tied to rural America,” as the source of most of the nation's food and energy. (Read more)

In another story, Doering says the reasons for the declining share of rural population are varied and complex, but experts say they boil down to one thing: fewer opportunities.

Technological advances have reduced the number of farm workers needed, and the growth of other industries, including steel and automobile, and college educations have pulled rural youth into urban centers, where they married and had children and stayed, not returning to their rural roots, Doering writes. As rural towns shrink, there's less demand for services that create jobs. Schools with smaller classes might have to lay off teachers or other staff. Businesses are more likely to not expand if a town's population is too small for them to make large enough profits. And all of those things reduce the amount of jobs and tax money available to improve local infrastructure.

A rural place's decline can be a spiral. Doering reports on a Department of Agriculture study, based on school-reunion interviews with people who stayed in a community and those who moved away, revealed that "The decline of a town had a direct impact on the psyche of people and affected whether they would want to return to raise their family or open a business." (Read more)

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