THE END OF RURAL AMERICA?
• 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.