rural population loss map

Middle America is losing its middle class. A national map of states suffering population loss looks as though a tractor plowed one wide row down the middle of the country from North Dakota straight through northern Texas, with a few furrows into Iowa and Minnesota. When energetic young adults move away, they leave behind a population that is older, without the diverse skills needed to survive in a global economy. Among families who remain, child poverty is rising, and parents often work two jobs, struggling to make ends meet in a low-wage service economy. Remarkably, a map tracking where the bulk of farm subsidies goes looks like that same tractor plowed it—as if the subsidies were speeding, rather than slowing, population loss.

congressional districts and farm subsidies map
Farm subsidies have been concentrated in the same areas that are losing population

A recent Carsey Institute survey finds that these heartland communities are rich in the intangible capital that is the bedrock of quality of life: neighbors trust and help each other, and everyone, regardless of income, volunteers in the local organizations that make civic life possible. What they need is tangible investment capital: jobs are disappearing and young people must leave to build their future.

The current farm bill could help remedy this middle-class drain by providing investment capital for hard-working Midwesterners committed to their communities, but it is currently mired in longstanding political commitments to crop subsidies. These generous subsidies were established as a safety net for farmers during the Depression, but now they go largely to big corporate agricultural firms, protected by strong lobbies.

(Editors’ note: Brownfield Network reported Tuesday that both House and Senate Ag Committee chairmen said this week that the farm bill won’t have hard caps on subsidies. “I can read the tea leaves – I know who the conferees are going to be,” Sen. Tom Harkin said. “So if you think there’s going to be any big changes in payment limits you’re sadly mistaken.”)

Today’s rural Americans, including farm families, get most of their income by working in stores or small factories rather than on the farm. According to the US Department of Agriculture fewer than two percent of rural Americans make their primary living through farming, yet crop subsidies to corn, soybeans, cotton, and wheat dominate the farm bill—$26.2 billion in the House version. That’s 19 times the amount that goes to promoting rural business development. If we really want to preserve the middle class and strong communities in the heartland, it should be the other way around.

Really, there are three rural Americas today, each with its own challenges and opportunities. Amenity-rich areas are healthy and growing as baby boomers retire, more people buy second homes, and footloose professionals choose to settle in small town communities with beautiful views and climates. At the other end of the spectrum are chronically poor communities, many in the South and Southwest, but also Indian reservations and much of central Appalachia and the Ozarks, where decades of underinvestment have left a depressing legacy.

“In the middle” are farm country and other resource-dependent areas, where agriculture, timber, mining or related manufacturing industries once supported a blue-collar middle class. These areas are rich in human and social capital—kids finish high school, community institutions are strong, and community spirit is deep. But all this classic good American community wealth is overshadowed by economic decline and dramatic population loss. They are in danger of falling into the deeply troubled state characterizing chronically poor places, with huge education and development challenges.

Carsey chart of youth outmigration
The greatest percentages of young people are leaving the Midwest, the Northeast, and the Mississippi Delta
Source: The Carsey Institute

These rural communities need investment in their economies and infrastructure—not crop subsidies—to reinvent themselves and thrive. Such “old economy” communities can only stem population loss by creating viable jobs for the next generation of middle-class workers. They would benefit from investments such as those envisioned in the New Homestead Act, with programs to help young people repay college loans, buy homes or start businesses with promises to live and work in a community for five years. And they need investment in the core infrastructure —roads, housing, water, and telecommunications— that supports businesses and families. We should use our public dollars to shore up and reinvigorate hard-pressed communities that need investment to prime the pump.

Mil Duncan directs the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

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