Challenges in Rural America Today
The rural parish, while distinct in its mission and character, is not separate from the social and economic life of rural America. A synopsis of the trends and conditions in the countryside may prove helpful in understanding the current situation of rural parishes. Here are highlights from a Carsey Institute* report on the Challenges and Opportunities in Rural America (March 2006):
The simplest truth about rural America is this: the more rural a place is, the harder its circumstances are. The most remote and sparsely populated areas are more likely to be persistently poor, to be losing population, and to have an unskilled labor force on the losing end of the global economy. Beyond this simple truth, however, generalizations are deceptive. For every rural county that has lost population since 2000, there is another that has gained new residents. For every rural place that depends on an agricultural economy, there are six more in which manufacturing is the economic mainstay and two more in which federal or state government is the largest employer.
The Carsey Report confirms what we found to be challenges faced by Catholic dioceses and parishes around the country:
- Poverty rates are higher in rural than in urban America.
- Alcohol and drug abuse (including prescription drugs) and methamphetamine use are major problems for rural areas.
- Many low-skill jobs in rural areas are vulnerable to economic globalization; international competition is causing continued decline in low-skill jobs within agriculture and manufacturing industries.
- Young adults continue to leave rural America. At the same time, people in their 50s and 60s are increasingly moving into rural areas.
- Rural America is growing more diverse and thus presents changes that need to be made for further growth. Since 1980, one-quarter of the population increase in rural America has come from the growing Hispanic population.
- Persistent population loss is occurring in only parts of the country: Great Plains, parts of the Corn Belt, the lower Mississippi Valley and central Appalachia. Rural parts of the South and West see increases in part due to retirement communities.
- Counties with attractive natural and recreational amenities hold onto and attract residents (coastal, lake, mountains). Proximity to cities is also a major advantage for rural areas.
Carey Institute at the University of New Hampshire
Compassion and Support for Rural People
In 1988, the U.S. bishops completed a task force* report on food, agriculture and rural concerns. They sought “not only to express our compassion and support for rural people, but also to stimulate and encourage the people of our cities to join the struggle actively and work for justice in rural communities.” The bishops focused on the moral and human dimensions of food and agricultural policy during the 1980s because of the alarming problems that persisted in rural America and around the world. As it was in past decades, these problems confront us today:
- Hundreds of millions of people malnourished or facing starvation around the world, despite food surpluses globally.
- Hardworking farm families leaving the land as a result of public policy and economic forces beyond their influence or control.
- Continuing exploitation of farmworkers and meat & poultry process workers.
- Persistent poverty and inadequate basic services in rural America.
- Growing concentration of resources in the hands of large agribusiness firms.
- An industrial, export-oriented food system that impoverishes farmers here and abroad.
- Continuing damage to land and water resources because of unsound agricultural policies and practices.
The U.S. bishops concluded then as we would certainly concur today:
What happens in rural America directly affects the quality of life for the rest of the United States and the world. Without increased emphasis, a legitimate expression of solidarity may be too easily crowded out by other pressing concerns and even indifference.
Food security, rural poverty, food trade and environmental con¬cerns need to be shared concerns. Food and agriculture is an agenda that can build solidarity among urban and rural people. These problems know no borders and do not stop at the city gate.
We are in this together. Our nation’s food and agricultural policies will enrich or diminish all of us wherever we live.
Questioning the changes underway
The problematic trends in our food and agricultural system are symptomatic of a profound transformation in the social and economic structures of our global community. This transformation has many causes, but critical drivers of change are the structural forces of a global economy, greater concentration and control of food production and agricultural resources, and the deteriorating conditions of land, water and air. National governments and local communities are right to question the global food system and ask about food security and agricultural sovereignty.
Catholic social teaching leads us to ask fundamental questions about the economy and shape of society: “Who effectively controls the system? Who makes the crucial decisions? Who benefits from the system? Does it enable people to participate effectively in it? Are the major actors in the food sector producers, input suppliers, processors and retailers responsive to the needs of society?” The bishops asked these questions 20 years ago. We ought to ask and find the answer to these questions again today.
Equally crucial to these economic questions is the urgent concern for the environment. As the bishops teach us, we have to be faithful stewards of the God given resources of the earth.
“All people on this globe share a common ecological environment that is under increasing pressure. Depletion of soil, water and other natural resources endangers the future. Pollution of air and water threatens the delicate balance of the biosphere on which future generations will depend. The resources of the earth have been created by God for the benefit of all, and we who are alive today hold them in trust.” (Economic Justice for All, p.12).
Rural America: The Challenge of Renewal By Dan Owens
“Rural America” – The words alone conjure an image of a place unchanged, small towns, simple life, and a dedication to the values that made our country strong: faith, family, community. The attachment to tradition, the valuing of what is old over what is new, and a conviction that the rural way of life is far more preferable than the urban or suburban way of living.
But rural towns also conjure an image of intolerant communities, a lack of innovation and a dying way of life. These are the contradictions of rural America. Much of what rural America holds dear is widely accepted to be responsible for its decline.
Rural America’s reputation for resisting change may be deserved, but perhaps a healthy skepticism is a more accurate description of rural America’s attitudes. Rural America has undergone and continues to undergo significant change, but not without reflection and yes, the occasional resistance. That is to be commended: change and progress do not necessarily accompany each other.
Rural America is not a static place; indeed, it is undergoing rapid change. The impetus for change comes both from within and without. Immigration, education, globalization – all are having dramatic impacts on the lives of rural citizens. The challenge to rural America is to preserve itself as the repository of our nation’s traditional ideals while adapting to the realities of the 21st century.
Despite popular perception, rural America is not a single community of homogenous farmers struggling to make a living. The communities of rural America are arguably far more diverse than their urban counterparts. Economically, socially, and culturally, rural America is at the forefront of adaptive change.
This diversity is most evident when surveying the rural economy. Across the country, agriculture still plays an important economic role – but fewer farmers are in business today than ever before. Many communities, blessed by natural amenities and scenic beauty, have capitalized on increased tourism as a way of strengthening the local economy. Manufacturing still employs many rural Americans. The service sector, including tourism, dominates rural employment, supplying a full 2/3 of rural jobs. Many rural areas still rely on mining and resource extraction, particularly in the West.
A principle challenge of nearly all rural communities is building a diverse economy. The practice of relying upon one economic sector to provide most of the jobs and income in a community is outdated and will not provide rural communities with the economic resilience necessary to survive in the 21st century. Given this economic diversity, we must recognize that a one-size-fits-all policy to revitalize our rural areas will fail miserably.
In respect to the diverse economies of rural America, a “one size fits all” policy to revitalize rural areas will fail miserably. It is crucial to advocate for broad policies that encourage entrepreneurship and asset building for rural citizens. Such policies, especially at the federal level, are appropriate and allow for the initiative and local control that will underlie successful rural economic development. Providing rural communities with the flexibility and resources necessary to determine and enact appropriate policies for each community will be the key to a true rural renaissance.
Education, healthcare, infrastructure – all of these (and more) are issues that rural America faces and must address to maintain its vitality. The solutions to rural America’s problems will be found in rural America. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that rural America has so many unique issues. In fact, most of the challenges facing rural America today are challenges for rural and urban alike. Often, the challenges are similar, but the solutions are more unique. The challenge of affordable, universal access to healthcare is common to all of America, but the solutions may differ in rural and urban communities.
Neither does the challenge of nurturing our common values in the 21st century belong only to rural America.
Today, we increasingly live in a society that handsomely rewards economic success, and work in a globalized economy that moves at an ever-faster pace. However, as a society, we have not enacted efficient or effective mechanisms to encourage those values we all share that reach far beyond money. We must find ways to reward behaviors and institutions that support the environment, our communities, our families – and our economy.
Rural America stands at the forefront in addressing this challenge. Given our nation’s history, it is not surprising that we should see rural America and its communities as home to our most treasured values. But all of America must work together to address the challenge of creating a just and sustainable society for the future.
Dan Owens was a former community organizer at the Center for Rural Affairs.