Is rural America dying?


More than ever, I’m convinced if rural America wants to grow, or even maintain existing levels of services and life, agriculture’s role as an economic driver must be recognized and supported.

The folks who bought their own taste of the country 10-15 years ago are no longer moving to rural regions, and other rural residents are leaving their sparsely populated areas in favor of greener urban suburban pastures.

In fact, according to a new report from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, the rural U.S population grew by only 2.2 million (4.5 percent) between 2000 and 2010 — a gain barely half as much as the rate of grow during the 1990s.

Outmigration really hit the rural areas of the Great Plains and Corn Belt, in the Mississippi Delta, and parts of the northern Appalachians. Some rural counties have lost more than 10 percent of their population from outmigration during the past 20 years.

Farming-dependent counties grew by just 0.3 percent. In many rural counties, deaths have exceeded births for decades.

In contrast, population gains in metropolitan areas were at almost 11 percent. A few lucky (depending on your perspective) rural areas — primarily on the outskirts of cities — saw growth.

In Ohio, and much of Pennsylvania, we aren’t hit that hard by population loss, but there are pockets where the drain is certainly felt. So what’s the point?

One way to maintain a quality of life — of availability of goods and service — in rural America, is to support the stability and economic grow of existing resources and opportunities, which, in rural areas is largely agricultural.

One legislative proposal, back in 2003, would’ve offered incentives in individuals and businesses to encourage them to stay in or move to counties at have steadily lost people — repayment of college loans, tax credits for home purchases, tax-free accounts to build savings, increased access to credit, business investment tax credits, and other business incentives.

With its narrow focus, it never made it out of committee, but it’s the type of thinking that could help rebuild drying areas.

Report author, sociologist Kenneth Johnson, writes, “Rural America was originally settled by people whose livelihood depended on their ability to wrestle food, fiber and minerals from the land.”

I think there are still people willing to do the same — even in the “boonies.” We need them. We need their production, determination, natural resources stewardship and social fabric.

In February, Charles Fluharty, CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, testified before the Senate Ag Committee to offer a rural development framework for portions of the new farm bill.

He offers good advice as to why even city dwellers should care about the health of their country out in the sticks. “… We must acknowledge that in today’s world, rural and urban outcomes are increasingly intertwined, and are becoming ever more interdependent, as are their citizens and economies.”

The 2008 survey and report, “Place Matters,” found a substantial majority of respondents in all rural regions would advise a teenager to leave for opportunities elsewhere. That’s a sad statement. We must find the vision and political will to reverse that reality. We must find a way to bring rural America back to life.

By Susan Crowell


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