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Americans have a couple of ways they tend to think about rural America.
On one side of the coin, we see it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland of dysfunction, intolerance, and economic ruin.
On the other, we see a pastoral cornucopia of small-town charm, neighbor helping neighbor, and home-grown tomatoes.
In other words, it’s all bad or all good.
Last week the New York Times published columns by Paul Krugman and David Brooks that fit these all-or-nothing patterns to a T.
Krugman wrote about the economic dysfunction of rural America, saying unstoppable forces prevent widespread rural economic recovery. “There are powerful forces behind the … economic decline of rural America – and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces.”
Brooks, on the other hand, wrote about the positive aspects rural civic life he has observed first-hand in visits to small towns in Nebraska. “I keep going to places with more moral coherence and social commitment than we have in booming urban areas.”
With just a few words, the economist (Krugman) and the moralist (Brooks) trigger our customary response to rural America. It’s so busted it can’t be fixed, or it’s so naturally good we must tread lightly lest we corrupt it. Either way, if you buy those stories, there’s not much American society can do collectively to help improve conditions in rural America. If it’s economically hopeless, why bother? If it’s morally superior, just let them figure it out on their own.
Both columnists are raising fundamental questions about the future of rural America. Both present parts of the story accurately. There’s nothing malicious about either column, necessarily. (Although there’s always speculation that the two men are fighting a passive-aggressive proxy war because the Times discourages direct debate between their columnists.)
But the binary, us-against-them framing of the rural question misses a far more important point. The future of rural America isn’t separate from the future of urban America. This isn’t a zero-sum game. It’s possible for rural and urban areas to succeed simultaneously, and by doing so, each part of the country helps the other part build a better future. Rural and urban areas depend on each other. That is why they both matter – not because one is more economically productive or the other is morally superior.
This isn’t my original thinking, of course. Folks at FrameWorks Institute looked at rural America about 15 years ago at the behest of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Their analysis of rural frames came out in 2005.
The reality is that rural and urban areas depend on each other. Each offers the other economic, cultural, social, and environmental necessities. When rural and urban are in tune, the success of one contributes to the success of the other. And, the corollary is also true: When one falters, the other is likely to experience loss.
There are plenty of examples. Metropolitan areas are the market hubs for their surrounding rural regions. Rural counties that are closer to metropolitan counties have fared better economically and demographically than more remote counties in the recovery from the 2008 recession. Metropolitan regions provide opportunities for rural young people who want advanced education and urban-focused careers. Metropolitan areas provide access to more specialized healthcare and other services that are easier to provide at higher population densities. The list goes on.
Conversely, rural communities provide the food, fiber, and energy that cities cannot generate for themselves. We can’t address green-energy and climate-change challenges without strong rural participation. Urban America needs rural stewards who harness the productivity of rural America while ensuring its sustainability. We all win if that happens.
Rural communities offer a lower cost of living than cities. Lower population density changes human interactivity and connection. We are more likely to know our neighbors and participate in social, civic, and religious activities. These are skills we desperately need these days, and rural America has a unique way of teaching them. That doesn’t mean rural Americans are morally superior to urban ones. The scale of human interaction tends to be more personal in rural communities, and that affects the nature of our relationships.
Rural and urban have become shorthand for political division and tribalism that pundits say are the hallmarks of our current civic discourse. The reality is that the rural-urban dichotomy is false. We need leaders and policies that reveal that falsity and create a new path forward for us all.
Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder. He is from east Kentucky and lives in Norris, Tennessee.
Read more responses to Paul Krugman’s New York Times column “Getting Real About Rural America: Nobody knows how to reverse the heartland’s decline” (March 18, 2019).