• Many concerned about population loss outside of big cities
• Can rural America maintain its pertinence in urban nation?
By Victor Thorn
A little more than 150 years ago during the Civil War, division among Americans was so severe that pools of blood and 625K slain bodies lay between the North and South. Today, another geographic split exists, except this one has rural Americans being pitted against their urban counterparts in a battle to determine whose influence counts most in these times.
On December 8, 2012, United States Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a stark warning that reflected this trend: “Rural America, with a shrinking population, is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country.”
Associated Press (AP) writer Hope Yen foretold of this division in a July 28, 2011 column. “Many communities could shrink to virtual ghost towns as they shutter businesses and close down schools,” she wrote in her wire service article released on that day.
These words should be taken seriously. This trend has been happening in the U.S. for the past century but it has been picking up in recent years.
In 1910, 72% of Americans lived in rural areas across the U.S. By 1960, however, that figure had dropped to 30%. Today, those defined as living in rural areas with fewer than 50K residents make up only 16% of the total U.S. population despite possessing 75% of total U.S. land.
Whereas urban growth rose by 10.8% in the past decade, those in agricultural communities experienced an anemic 0.3% increase. In fact, deaths have surpassed births—a phenomenon known as “natural decrease”—in 36% of rural locales, while half of all rural counties suffered population declines over the past 10 years. West Virginia senior citizens now nearly double those aged 18-24.
Due to significant losses in industries such as logging, mining and agriculture, poverty rates are almost 20% higher in rural areas than in major cities. As a result, from 2007 to 2009, food stamp recipients in the rural U.S. grew by 26%. Similarly, two of every three dollars spent by the Agriculture Department is earmarked for welfare programs, with food stamp expenditures topping the list.
With America plagued by a stagnant economy, businesses are isolating rural parts of America. Yen wrote that, “Delta Air Lines announced it would end flights to 24 small airports, several of them in the Great Plains, [while] the U.S. Postal Service is mulling plans to close thousands of branches in mostly rural areas of the country.”
Marred by aging populations and few young workers to balance it, other consequences affect rural residents. Hospitals in these regions are facing bankruptcies or severe financial difficulties, and have been unable to attract surgeons and medical specialists who demand high salaries. Moreover, since they can’t fill enough beds to generate revenue, financial sharks on Wall Street get into the game, forcing rural hospitals into corporate buyouts with larger, banker-financed healthcare entities, who then downsize the hospitals to cut costs and increase profits for shareholders.
At the other end of the scale is education. With fewer students and shrinking tax bases, rural schools face obvious disparities compared to urban schools teeming with pupils. In Georgia, smaller districts receive, on average, $400 less in funding per student than those in cities.
However, good news does exist, though, especially in rural parts of North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Ohio, that are capitalizing on a boom in shale oil, natural gas and coal. These states are attracting flocks of new employees searching for work in these fields. Other savvy planners in small town America have bolstered awareness of their skiing, hiking and recreation, which urban populations seek out to relieve stress.
In addition, the low crime rates in rural areas are in stark contrast to the war zones in Chicago, Oakland and New York City. According to 2008 data from the Centers for Disease Control, “60% of U.S. firearm homicides occurred in [only] 62 cities.” These tend to be isolated to the largely black and poor areas of major cities.
However, one remaining factor withholds bittersweet connotations for rural residents. Namely, increased “urban sprawl” may simply swallow up smaller regions. A perfect example is a megalopolis stretching from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C., and then down to Richmond, Virginia that may ultimately blur the line between urban, suburban and rural.
Reviving Rural America
• Activists work with county sheriffs to save America’s heartland
By Victor Thorn
On January 16 AMERICAN FREE PRESS interviewed Erin Ryan of Support Rural America, an organization that seeks to save America’s heartland and works closely with county sheriffs.
“There is a deep-seated drive to force people out of rural areas and into urban environments,” Ms. Ryan told AFP.
When asked why, Ms. Ryan said, “It’s easier to control them in cities.”
According to Ms. Ryan, legislators are the ones who are really behind this plot.
“There is a full-court press by environmentalists, the EPA, pseudo-scientists and other regulators that are all tied to Agenda 21,” said Ms. Ryan. “Whether they steal water rights or pull backdoor eminent domain schemes by taking out dams that flood properties and make them worthless, 50% of farmers in the Central Valley [California] are now on public assistance. Because they’ve lost their water and the ability to maintain crops, farmers made bumper stickers that read: Congress created this dustbowl. Thank you Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.”
Under the auspices of fighting pollution, Agenda 21 refers to a complex set of regulations created by the United Nations that seek to define how land can be used. The U.S. is a signatory to the agreement, but many local communities still manage to block efforts to impose it.
Getting to the crux of this issue, Ms. Ryan continued, “Most of the policies coming from Sacramento and Washington are enacted by lawmakers more concerned with urban areas than rural. The bottom line is: Liberals like [Sens. Barbara] Boxer and [Dianne] Feinstein scoff at people who don’t live in cities. Worse, they don’t get out here where we live, and they have no interest in learning about us.”
Ms. Ryan further elaborated on the cultural divide: “Rural people tend to be more self-sufficient, conservative, community-oriented, pro-gun and able to work with their hands. To crush this spirit, legislators want to make them dependent by removing their ability to earn a living.
“In a nearby logging community, there were once 22 mills. Today, after being besieged by government agencies, only one remains. So people get poorer, which leads to more domestic abuse and alcoholism.”
Ms. Ryan said the situation is troubling because older people are encouraging youth in their communities to leave the rural areas in search of easier lives in the cities.
“Sadly, more parents aren’t planning on passing their farms along to their children,” she said, “or they’re encouraging them to find other careers.”
Back-to-the-Land Movement Sows Self-Sufficiency
By Victor Thorn
A century ago, 39% of Americans tilled the land on family farms. Today, that number hovers at around 2%. Total operating farms have dropped by three-quarters from 80 years ago, and only 6% of agricultural workers, excluding migrants, were born after 1980.
When most people think of the American heartland, the iconic hard working family farmer frequently comes to mind. But with the declining number of farmers out there, what does this say of the country’s future? There are some positive signs that a modern “back to the land” movement is again underway, with many young Americans leaving their dead-end jobs in the city to take up farming without the use of pesticides, herbicides, drugs and genetically-modified seeds. Additionally, a technological renaissance is blooming for the farm industry, one not without worry, however.
In a July 2012 article for Atlantic magazine, Chrystia Freeland envisioned a production revolution led by sophisticated technology. She wrote, “Prior to WW II, it took 100 hours of labor to produce 100 bushels of corn. Today, it takes less than two hours.” With machinery that combines GPS units and computer systems, Freeland described this 21st century shift. “The cabs of today’s combines look like airplane cockpits or the control rooms on factory floors.”
Freeland provided one more positive bit of news. “In 2010, of all farms in the U.S. with at least $1M in revenues, 88% were family farms.” However, the Environmental Protection Agency offered a disclaimer. “Fewer than one in four farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50K.” Then, of course, there’s the Monsanto factor where 80% of all corn raised in America is genetically modified. Or, as Michael Snyder of a popular Internet website The Economic Collapse stressed on April 26, 2012, “The predatory business practices of Monsanto have been well documented. Monsanto has taken countless numbers of farmers to court, and they are absolutely ruthless.”
To combat these corporate Frankenfoods, health-minded consumers are enjoying a renewal in farmers markets and butcher shops that produce their own foods. Plus, a revitalized interest in urban homesteading now allows those residing in cities to raise poultry, grow vegetables or fruits, produce bio-fuels, or make honey from their own beehives. As Alexis Petru commented in a May 26, 2011 article, “Urban homesteading takes the local food movement to the next level. Rather than buying local seasonal produce to reduce the amount of miles food travels to your plate, an urban homesteader’s meal makes an even shorter trip—from the backyard or community garden to the plate.”
On the Internet, there are thousands of blogs maintained by young farmers who have left behind careers in finance, design, construction and other industries. Today, they work the land to varying degrees, some doing so only part-time while maintaining a job in a neighboring town or city.
Author and farmer Jenna Woginrich is a good example of this trend. In 2012, she quit her job as a graphic designer to raise sheep, chickens and hogs full-time. In order to pay the bills, the 31-year-old has written several books on farming that document her own trials and tribulations when it comes to agriculture.
Lisa Steele is another example. Ten years ago, she gave up an unfulfilling job on Wall Street to move to Suffolk, Virginia and start raising chickens with her husband on her farm. Since then, she has created quite a following by documenting her life on her website.
Then there are Ethan Book and his wife, who bought an old farm in Knoxville, Iowa, and started raising rare-breed animals and became advocates for small farmers.
These young farmers have figured out how to bypass multinational agricultural corporations like Archer-Daniels Midland and work directly with consumers through farmers markets and community-support agriculture.
Also, health-conscience consumers have been enjoying this renewal in farm markets and butcher shops that specialize in local foods.
Rural Politics vs. Urban Politics
By Victor Thorn
With data indicating that pastoral America is waning in influence, this trend is no more apparent than in Washington, D.C. For the first time in decades Congress failed to pass a farm bill in 2012.
Displeased by this snub, Michael McCurry of the South Dakota State Census Bureau complained, “Rural people are not that insignificant, [but] we don’t have the votes. We don’t have the voice.”
Similarly, in a January 13 article for Gannett News Service, Christopher Doering observed, “Rural Americans are becoming less relevant in the country’s increasing urban landscape, and unless they find a way to reverse the trend their voice will continue to fall on deaf ears in Washington.”
Today in Congress, 80% of legislators don’t represent rural areas, thereby insuring that these locales receive a smaller chunk of government spending. In addition, many lawmakers on the east and west coasts view the Heartland as “flyover country,” ignoring their more conservative views on abortion, religion, traditional marriage and ethnic diversity.
Considering America’s changing demographics, even though 61% of rural residents voted against Obama, they simply couldn’t compete with urban venues. Of the 30 most populous U.S. cities, 27 voted for Obama, with only Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City and Phoenix going for Romney.
In a March 14, 2012 article for Forbes magazine, Joel Kotkin noted, “Cities have become so lockstep Democratic as to be essentially irrelevant to the Republican Party.”
Personally, in this writer’s home state of Pennsylvania, even though 55 of 67 counties voted GOP, Obama still attained victory because Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the state capital of Harrisburg trumped them. The same applies to Texas. Despite resounding support for Romney across the state, Texas’s four largest metro areas—Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin—all weighed in for Obama. Likewise in Michigan, over 75% of counties voted red, yet Romney lost under the weight of urban powerhouses in Detroit and Flint.
Victor Thorn is a hard-hitting researcher, journalist and author of over 30 books.