Even though the majority of the nation's population has shifted from small towns to metropolitan areas, rural America can't be forgotten by policy and economic leaders.

[imgcontainer] [img:house-development_194_600x450.jpg] [source]Photo by Sarah Leen[/source] Even though the majority of the nation's population has shifted from small towns to metropolitan areas, rural America can't be forgotten by policy and economic leaders. [/imgcontainer]

If the long-standing rural-urban trends aren’t enough to make you weep, the discussion in policy circles might do the trick. Consider Aaron M. Renn’s, Why State Economic Development Strategies Should Be Metro-Centric. Renn, who publishes the Urbanophile blog, describes the reality of the primacy of metropolitan regions as economic units and their ability to compete globally.

The hardest reality, especially those of us in smaller cities and rural areas, is that the odds of a comeback are next to zero in many, maybe most places. If you have been laid off, it is possible you “may never be employed again,” according to Renn, who uses his home state of Indiana for his analysis.

Here’s a truth harder than Renn’s. Globalization, backed by corporate and government interests, has sentenced many Americans to permanent poverty that is physically and mentally harmful; wasteful of human talents and energy; a drain on governments and businesses; and a source of discontent and division.

For the most part, rural areas already are festering. They have been—and continue to be under the new world order—marginalized by geographic discrimination, characterized by long-term regional recessions. Demand for fossil and alternative fuels has benefitted a few, but is destroying our most precious and basic natural resources, water and soil.

Rampant inequality has a price.

In calling for metro-centric development policy Renn writes:

“Instead of creating a subsistence economy, the focus should instead be on creating the best wage economy possible, one that offers upward mobility, for the most people possible, and using redistribution for the chronically unemployed. You may say this is welfare—and you’re right. But I would submit to you that the state is already in effect a gigantic welfare engine. In addition to direct benefits, the taxation and education systems are redistributionist, and the state’s entire economic policy, transport policy, etc. are targeted at left-behind areas (i.e., welfare). Even corrections [prison] is in a sense warehousing the mostly poor at ruinous expense….” 

Renn’s prescription is well thought out, and I am sympathetic with his idea of including redistribution. Even so, the approach is problematic in the realities of today’s fractious political economy where government is the enemy and redistribution cannot possibly lift people out of poverty because it has always been keyed to bare subsistence.

Messing with current state development policies could upset the comfy corporate welfare apparatus. An explicit metro-focused state development policy might be challenged as unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s equal protection provisions. Current state corporate welfare schemes to attract businesses are already on the fringe of constitutionality, but that point is moot. State court decisions since at least the 1950s have sanctioned these policies based on increased public welfare that supposedly results from state support for job creation. Federal courts have not really weighed in on the issue.

Businesses have been incredibly reluctant to create jobs since the 2007 financial debacle. Urban areas, behind their glossy façade of success, face relatively high levels of permanent and temporary unemployment, as well as poverty, including the suburban areas where the traditional middle class is hard pressed. Even as creation remains paltry, wages across the board are not growing.

Federal policy since 2007 has mainly emphasized wealth creation based on speculation in securities and real estate, including farmland. The trickle-down approach has only added to the already gaping mal-distribution of wealth. Job creation is on the table for discussion, but poverty is discussed in low whispers, if at all.

Widespread prejudice toward the unemployed and impoverished — “blame the victims,” if you will — is rampant and destructive and stands in the way of redistribution. Rural unemployment and poverty rates remain high. Recovery is a dubious proposition somewhere out there. Maybe two years? Maybe three? As Renn notes, it may never happen in rural areas. We live in horrific uncertainty woven into the reality of an unfair economy that has been staggering for well over a generation.

How can you possibly devise policies in a country so deeply divided? Some, but not all of the nation’s weird policy conversations of late can be laid at the feet of fragments of rural hard-core individualists rooted in unregulated “free” markets, absolute property rights, hate for anything that smacks of government interference and social Darwinism that nurtures mean-spirited attitudes toward the poor and disenfranchised as well as anyone who disagrees with these positions. (This meanness resides among some liberals too.)

The reaction against 1930s’ New Deal social, political, and economic reforms and their loud echoes of the 1960s is well organized, well financed and vocal. It challenges long-standing U.S. domestic policies. Those reforms, whether implemented during the New Deal or later in the 1960s—such as the War on Poverty, Civil Rights legislation and efforts to redress rural geographic discrimination—were launched with good intentions, though often the results were mixed.

These historic New Deal-style reforms anchor one pole of a complicated debate that has gone on for generations. The reforms are based on the premise of government guaranteeing some equality of opportunity for all citizens, not just a privileged few. Conservatives consider this approach to be overreach, unwarranted government interference.

Simply put, however, poverty and unemployment are part of a larger picture that includes individual, political, economic and geographic dimensions. Many places find themselves deprived of sufficient resources to survive, much less prosper. Pressure to reduce government assistance creates more problems in a weak economy that already favors the wealthy.

Federal and state programs to create jobs and alleviate poverty are limited even in good times. The long-run corrosive aspects of the balkanization of our political economy are outlined in two recent New York Times pieces, one on our beleaguered middle class, and the other on the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty.

In fact America’s chronically impoverished, along with millions of newcomers since 2007, already live in a subsistence economy because of forces out of their control. A forced “simple lifestyle” is our national shame, whether it’s in rural or urban areas.

But simple lifestyle by choice in a community-based subsistence economy might offer an alternative to traditional policy prescriptions that make corporations more profitable and keep wages low.

So, let’s turn the idea of subsistence on its head and consider an alternative for rural communities. Can we envision a basic, but clear public and private commitment to provide everyone with tools for a comfortable life? Can we assure that basic human needs will be filled: food, shelter, clothing, health care, education and fulfilling life’s work with adequate wages?

Subsistence — defined here as treading lightly on the earth while living a good life — can be a positive alternative and a lifestyle choice supported by rural communities and state and federal policymakers.

Let’s banish the notion of global competitiveness as the primary goal for rural areas and communities. Let’s focus on capacity building and improving the quality of life. We need to create jobs with adequate pay for bountiful, but sustainable subsistence. We need to consider the crucial importance of reversing environmental damage and building small, manageable, and sustainable communities. 

We need an unwavering rural policy emphasis on green jobs that first builds local economies and then focuses on the wider supply chain that produces products and services that enhance the already strained ecosphere that we used to call Spaceship Earth.

Wishful thinking. But the cost of further marginalizing rural America and the poor is incredibly high, too.

This is no time to throw in the towel on rural America. If nothing else, we may need the towel for our tears if we can’t accomplish what needs to be done.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.