Rural America is not in decline. It is already dead. For years now there have been countless articles from multiple sources contemplating the dire situation of rural America. The typical questions raised were, can rural America rebound, can rural America recover, will rural America ever return to its glory days, why don’t rural Americans relocate?
All good questions. All bad answers. Let us face facts, none of which rural communities across the country want to hear. It is too late. Yes, too late for rural communities to return to their heyday. For a quarter of a century the state of rural America has been experiencing a shrinking and aging population, less productivity, incomes on the decline, growing drug use and rising crime rates. To make matters even worse the trade policies of Trump’s administration has devastated farmers across the country, many selling out to the corporate giants.
Rural America, for all the reasons previously mentioned, is also bleeding their best and brightest. Students fortunate enough to go to college rarely return to their hometowns. While at university they were exposed to a new world. One that included people that did not look like them, that shared experiences they never dreamed of, and opportunities they never knew existed.
Most rural Americans will look to find blame for all of this elsewhere. But it is the rural mindset that is the major reason for the death of rural America. The vast majority want their neighbors to look like them, think like them, share their faith and politics and are less than inviting to those that do not. In other words, they are set in their ways. The problem they face is that the world around them is growing in ways they refuse to adapt to. What business would want a workforce that is less educated and less likely to adapt to the modern and ever-changing technologies and socioeconomic diversity in today’s business world? Very few, unless they want to take advantage of the lower wages they will pay in rural communities.
The last time rural counties experienced a significant economic growth rate was in the early to mid-1990s. Since then all those gains have been decimated. In an article penned by the New York Times in 2018, the author made a striking observation still relevant today. “No one – not experts or policymakers or people in these communities – knows quite how to pick rural America up.” Two years later it is safe to say rural America is dead.
Rural Americans are not doomed to the same fate. They have a choice. They can stay and try to eke out a meager living where job opportunities are shrinking, healthcare facilities are limited, and hope for a brighter future for themselves and their children is just that, hope. Or they relocate. They take that scary step to build a better life for their families outside their comfort zones. For decades now a large percentage of economic growth has been achieved in the metropolitan areas of the United States. This should be no surprise as these areas have greater tools at their disposal. High-speed internet, greater educational opportunities, union trade schools, superior infrastructure. Everything that businesses use to their advantage.
I retired from Chicago to a small rural community of 12,000 in the Ozarks ten years ago. I like the area. It is beautiful and the winters are mild compared to Chicago. But, to make a point about the aging of rural America over 50% of the population is over 50 years old. I have seen small businesses come and go with a surprisingly rapid rate. I also see a level of mediocrity within the business community. They can settle for being “okay” because there is not a high level of competition. The vast majority of those doing business in this rural town would not last a month in Chicago. I only mention this to drive home the fact this is just one more example of why rural America is dead. It is not meant to disparage those working hard to keep their businesses afloat.
Like the businesses they patronize rural Americans are settling for mediocrity. They make excuses as to why it is so great to live where they live. I have heard them all. Less traffic, less crime, more freedom, blah, blah, blah. Let’s break this down. No doubt there is less traffic. It is because there is nowhere to go and far fewer people going there. There is less crime, but not necessarily per capita and this will be especially true as poverty continues to grow in rural America. And more freedom? Really? Freedom to do what exactly? Work for poverty-level wages even if you can get a job? Freedom to fly the flag or own a gun? You can do that anywhere.
Now, to be honest, as an old retired guy, I am grateful for the ease of which I can get around. It takes me ten minutes tops to get anywhere I need to go. And that is why rural America is aging. More retired folks are relocating to areas like the one I live in for a less hectic life where taxes and real estate are less costly.
I and others in my position have several advantages over most rural Americans. We came from areas where decades of high wage earnings and in many cases pensions that allowed for comfortable retirements. We do not work for low wages unless we choose to just to keep busy. We have the freedom to travel when we choose. We are not bound by our surroundings.
Because of my rural experience I have come to understand that for most younger rural folks making a move to “the big city” can be a daunting task. That is largely due to a mindset that is reflecting on what they would miss if they moved.
What they fail to focus on is what they can gain. The opportunity to have more fulfilling careers, a chance for greater educational opportunities, better schools for their children, a growing social environment with world-class museums, theaters, sporting events, travel options, and more.
The emergence of COVID-19 will exacerbate the problems rural America will now face. Cash strapped states (more likely to be rural ones) will need to allocate their tax dollars where it will benefit the most people. That will be in their metropolitan regions. Any infrastructure projects in rural communities could very likely be put on hold or abandoned altogether. Rural school districts that receive state aid could find themselves in dire straits. In any case, the COVID economy will most certainly hurt small-town America harder.
Sadly, most rural inhabitants will never experience all the advantages a metropolitan life offers. They simply don’t know what they don’t know. I fear that soon they will have little choice as rural America is dead. It won’t be long before America will have more ghost towns to visit.
We know, Rural America is only doomed to decline if you define it so restrictively that it’s not allowed to grow. Defined more broadly. The facts are clear and unarguable. Most of the nation’s smaller urban and rural counties are not growing and will not grow.