Thursday, December 29, 2005

What if Rural Mattered?

This question (from the Blog for Rural America) brings up a lot of different thoughts that I have had, though I have hardly unified them into a personal theory of what rural America needs. This is an issue I am very close to, though, and I'm more interested in the reality than being absolutely right in this post, so please leave your objections or questions in the comments below.

I grew up in a rural area, and still live here, though I don't think it's where I'll stay. I am not exactly an outdoorsy person and think a city would have a lot more to offer me recreationwise, etc. What I'm getting at is that I don't romanticize rural America, and I don't think there's any sort of nebulous good that comes from people living out here. Rural doesn't matter to me per se, and I don't know why ruralness in itself should be a big concern of the US government. I do know that there are lots of people who prefer rural living, and that a lot of natural resource-based industries (farming, logging, mining) require that people live in rural areas. There will always be rural Americans, and it goes without saying that all American citizens deserve equal access to opportunities.

I am close to a social worker who was recently deeply involved in the issue of rural homelessness, and it's given me an appreciation for the unique problem of rural poverty. A lot of people are stuck in dying communities that can't economically support their populations, and their physical distance from economic empowerment is a very big obstacle. It's a sad state of affairs and not being properly addressed by urban policy-makers (or me, for that matter - watch for a more detailed and informative post by him later).

There are a lot of things about rural living for its own sake that are very costly, however. If you drive 60 miles on your road and don't see anyone, that's a lot of infrastructure going to accomodate one driver per hour. I know a lot of people who are well-educated and very employable who choose to live a 60 minute's drive from their place of employment (and in a rural area, that's probably a 45-50 mile drive). They pay for it in gas mileage and commute time, but taxpayers also are funding the roads they drive on and the education their children get. It strikes me as an enormous waste of resources for the sake of what is essentially a luxury - the privilege of living comfortably in a rural area. People can spend their money how they choose, but the government does not need to devote extra resources to the relatively well-off simply because they want to have a nice view.

I'm also not completely enthralled with the idea of the family farmer having enormous amounts of resources dumped in their direction so they may live their romantic farming lifestyles. I'm not coming down in favor of big agribusiness here, because I know that it saps the resources of government as well, and to the rich, as well as all the environmental problems it brings up, etc. What I am saying is that if being a small family farmer is economically unfeasible, I am not sure why the government needs to prop the idea up. If the small family farm produces commodities people are willing to pay for (or commodities the government is willing to create policy to encourage people to pay for), then I'm all for it. What I am not interested in is propping up a romanticized lifestyle that is an economic drain and keeps people isolated. Medium-sized food production operations have the potential to offer both environmentally and socially responsible goods while maximizing profit. It sounds great to me, even if it means fewer red barns in the countryside. It makes me want to scream when people bring up agritourism and organic farming as the answers to rural America's problems. These are boutique industries that are supported by the wealthy who can afford to patronize them, and can never support the amount of rural people who are looking for a source of economic power.

There is a certain segment of rural Americans who are demanding too much of the rest of the country. Taxpayers have no responsibility to subsidize your MaryJane Butters lifestyle. On the other hand, there are many more rural Americans who are not getting what the rest of the country has promised them. I should say again that I don't pretend to be able to authoritatively separate fact from fantasy on this issue, and I can't provide the crunchy economic and policy details that show what's what in rural economies. If we're going to be serious about fixing the real and heartbreaking problem of rural poverty, we have to separate the mythology from the reality.

Rural isn't what matters, it's rural Americans.
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