Rural America: It’s Complicated…Really Complicated

Curt-lineby Curt Kovener

For those who don’t know or prefer to think otherwise, we live in rural America. Whether you read this in Jackson, Scott, Lawrence, Jennings, Washington or Brown County you are in RURAL America…whether you like it or not…whether you believe it or not.

There are two closely held, widely believed, narratives about rural America. The national media narrative, with roots in the 1980’s farm crisis, is fatalistic. Rural places are dying. It lives on at the Brookings Institute, New York Times and Fox News, fueled by demographics that show decades of population decline across much of rural America.

The other narrative is woven by small town boosters. They point to new demographic data showing 30-49 year olds returning to small towns. They talk with passion about new businesses and housing shortages.

The challenge is, neither narrative is wholly accurate. The truth is far more complex. The fatalists, caught in a crisis mind frame, are wrong. Rural America will not return to a vast buffalo commons anytime soon. Meanwhile, the boosters lead with great local successes while brushing over underlying trends.

To build a vibrant small town future in America, we must understand clearly what challenges we face and where emerging opportunities exist.

Many small towns, like Crothersville, are losing population, yet young families moving in often cannot find attractive housing. Much small town infrastructure, like roads and streets, is in decline, but contractors, plumbers and electricians have more work than they can handle.

Everyone likes to live, work and visit in a clean environment. Perhaps that can be a starting off point for small communities like Crothersville. Taking pride in your home, your business, your street and doing some early spring cleaning and pick-up…even if it isn’t your responsibility.

Is there some fall and winter debris clogging a ditch culvert or drain along your street or road. Sure it is someone else’s responsibility but it could behoove everyone if you were the somebody who went the extra mile and cleared the drain away so the coming spring rains can drain away.

And as you walk down town for shopping and see some little, a paper cup or some ubiquitous plastic shopping bag, it’s not your job but pick it up and put it in a trash can for disposal.

If others see you being responsible for cleaning up the town, they will join in. Maybe not immediately, but they will join in and do their part as well.

America’s small town reality is complex. Some places thrive, others struggle. And in every small town there is a mix of success and challenge. Understanding these dynamics is the only path to a vibrant future.

Brian Depew for the Center For Rural Affairs assisted with this column.

Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.