Guest Columnist

Is rural Iowa different?

The same social, economic and political forces are at work no matter where one lives.

An aerial photograph in rural Johnson County on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
An aerial photograph in rural Johnson County on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

A lot is being made about the differences between voters who live in rural parts of the state compared to those who live in our cities and urban areas.

It’s a false distinction. The same social, economic and political forces are at work no matter where one lives. None of it favors regular people like us.

Why does everything cost more? Why do we have to drive so far for health care? Why is our broadband inconsistent at best if we have it? Why can’t farmers sell milk for at least the cost of production? Why are there patents on seeds? Why does new farm equipment cost so much? Many questions, few answers.

Why do more than half of working people in predominantly rural counties work in another county? The answer to this is easy. Farming does not pay unless one is a big corporation. Someone in most farm families has to work outside the farm to make ends meet and such jobs are mostly urban.

When people say of politicians, “We need someone who understands the rural areas,” it is true. It is also code for something: hard work, poverty, a lack of economic justice, and a type of Christian religious faith. For the most part it is about being a Caucasian farmer.

Of recent writers, Sarah Smarsh came closest to capturing what being rural means in her book Heartland: Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth. The book resonated so closely with how I grew up yet I lived in Iowa’s third largest city. There are differences between the urban county where I grew up and the rural county I know best (Cedar County). Those differences are not significant. Try telling that to someone who lives in a rural area and you’ll find self-righteousness and resentment.

I won’t resolve this false dichotomy. Just as Jack Kerouac’s more conventional first book, The Town and the City gave way to the “spontaneous prose” of On the Road, it is difficult to focus on it for long when so much more about society is engaging.

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Suffice it the assertion of ruralness isn’t about being rural. It’s about having dignity, justice and equal treatment under the law. It’s about a return for the hard labor so many farmers invest as part of their lives. At some point labor should be rewarded for its sacrifices instead of return on equity going to the richest people and corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, John Deere, DuPont and Archer Daniels Midland.

Iowa’s well-developed road system is partly to blame for the rural-urban divide. Because of inexpensive gasoline it is easy to drive to a metropolis when shopping for food, building products, household goods and clothing. When there are no rural jobs, a commute of less than an hour might produce income far above what farm earnings can be. Americans, rural or urban, are at a distance from producing their own food, shelter and clothing. Let’s face it. Who wants to live like Old Order Amish? I’ve met enough young people trying to escape that life to say not many. Yet we still see horse drawn carriages using Iowa’s rural road systems.

Use of the rural trope drives me a bit crazy. Not crazy enough to call the suicide hotline, yet enough to be a catalyst. The thing about catalysts is they can get us to where we should be going faster, the way iron is a catalyst for making ammonia. If people who live in rural areas want to get ahead, they need to steel themselves against language that would divide them from the rest of us. That includes their own language. We are stronger together and fabricating a rural-urban divide is counterproductive. That is, if we want society to advance toward something positive.

Paul Deaton lives in rural Johnson County and retired from a career in transportation and logistics during the coronavirus pandemic

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