OPINION

Are our rural communities worth saving?

Reuters

A United States flag hangs from a barn near Solon in January. Midwesterners are commonly thought of as keepers of the nation’s moral compass.
Reuters A United States flag hangs from a barn near Solon in January. Midwesterners are commonly thought of as keepers of the nation’s moral compass.
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In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt stood before Congress and discussed “the unwholesome tendency” of people to move out of rural and into urban areas.

The “more active and restless young men and women,” he noted, were driven from rural families and especially off farms, rebelling “at loneliness and lack of mental companionship.”

While much of the country’s attention at that time was rightfully focused on further expanding American agriculture into the national and international force we now know, Roosevelt was the first leader to state unequivocally that agriculture was “not the whole of country life.”

Rural interests are human interests, he said, “and good crops are of little value to the farmer unless they open the door to a good kind of life on the farm.”

Roosevelt took his critique of rural America (and ultimately his plan for salvation) a step further — beyond better roads, equitable freight costs, schools and postal services. True rural reform, he decided, meant enrichment of rural social life.

To that end, he sought to instill in rural America the same types of institutions that were believed to have bettered urban areas. He wanted to strengthen rural churches, for instance, through the addition of YMCA facilities, just as had been done in the cities.

Without healthy, procreating families, “the farms of America could not sustain the cities,” which in turn could not feed “the hungry nations” abroad nor remain the “stay and strength of the nation” in peace or war.

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For Roosevelt, rescuing farmers was fundamental to social sustainability on a national, as well as international, level.

In August 1908, a little more than a decade after a noisy rural Populist movement was mostly silenced, Roosevelt established the Commission on Country Life to little fanfare among rural residents.

While farmers pointed to unfair economic conditions, the Country Life reformers, as they came to be known, sought to increase agricultural production by way of increasing rural morality.

Within three years a report was issued, highlighting a list of the rural “deficiencies” that had led to outward migration, lack of productivity and, at their heart, the love-hate relationship entrenched between urban and rural Americans.

The commission was the first significant national quest to “fix” what ailed rural America.

The “fixing” continues today, more than 100 years later, even as our rural communities struggle to meet unique challenges like housing families, educating children, making a living and preserving a quality and character of life that is as precious to those who choose it as it is central to our national character.

CHANGING SEMANTICS

For much of our history, the Midwest’s rural communities have been the crucible of the American dream, the physical and cultural midpoint between Eastern cities and the wild West.

Our rural places have inspired many names for the Midwest — not all of them flattering. We were the wilderness and plains. We are home to Corn Belt as well as the Rust Belt. We are the Heartland, the keepers of our country’s moral compass, or so it’s said. We gave birth to and helped raise this country’s ideal of rugged individualism; to this day, we are known for rewarding hard work and patience.

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More recently, our squared-off farm fields have prompted the nickname “flyover country;” these fertile acres appearing as quaint quilt blocks to non-Midwesterners looking through an airplane window. From such a great height, the middle states seem interchangeable: “You’re from Iowa? Do you live near Cincinnati?”

From 10,000 feet, we’re “methland,” a place where people turn to drugs to keep from facing dim futures, suffering from “brain drain” whose rural young people, by choice or necessity, leave home to find their futures somewhere else. We’re the pastoral backdrop for presidential candidates to plant well-heeled feet on bales of straw and make their appeals to the nation.

There is a grain of truth to it all. Many of our rural places are struggling. Deserts of food and opportunity describe the increasing distance rural residents need to travel for essential services like grocery stores and specialized medical care. For most of our rural neighbors, 100 years of lackluster trickle-down revitalization efforts have been of little help.

But up close, the picture is much more nuanced than the caricatures allow.

Since Roosevelt’s time, each Democratic and Republican administration has launched some sort of rural revitalization plan to entice young adults to put down roots in rural communities, spark a new generation of family farmers or promote industrial growth: Community Block Grants. Rural Community Development Initiatives. Job creation tax credits. Tuition reimbursement. Student loan forgiveness.

These policies and grants have provided hit-and-miss relief but no answers.

CHANGING CONVERSATIONS

So, what do we mean by “rural” communities? After all, many of Iowa’s mid-size cities look relatively small to someone accustomed to a Los Angeles, New York or Chicago skyline.

The closest the nation has to a definition is provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, which describes counties with no towns with a population above 9,999 people as “noncore.” And nationally, for the fourth year in a row, based on Census Bureau estimates, these counties have suffered population declines. In contrast, counties with even small cities — populations between 10,000 to 50,000 — have seen small population increases similar to metropolitan counties.

Fifty-four of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population from 2013 to 2014, according to these estimates. In only five of Iowa’s “noncore” counties has population increased since the 2010 census.

As more people leave, local tax bases are eroded, threatening city services and infrastructure. As farms grow, fewer farmers are left to support local ag-related economies. Schools and churches slowly empty.

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Competition is tough for federal and state grant programs designed to aid small communities. Many struggling communities no longer have city staff with the time and know-how to complete grant applications.

Iowa leads the nation in the production of corn, soybeans, pork, eggs, ethanol and biodiesel. It is the second largest state, behind California, in total value of agriculture production. Just from an agricultural standpoint, there’s a lot at stake.

But that’s only the beginning.

Rarely has a week passed when a Gazette reporter didn’t file a story connected to the issues facing rural America. We’ve looked at the rural housing and health care crises, reported on local development efforts, ag-related issues and population trends.

There are a lot of pieces, but Iowans need and deserve a more cohesive picture. A ground-level view of our rural communities’ challenges and successes. Over the coming months, The Gazette editorial board and news staff will work to bring that picture together. We’ll hold town hall forums and conduct our own research into topics of interest to rural Iowans and present our findings in these pages.

But don’t wait for us to come to you. We need your voice, beginning today. Send us photos of the things in your community that deserve saving. Tell us why they are important. Show us what makes you proud and what makes you sad. Introduce us to towns, communities, businesses and people who are thriving, so we all can learn from their successes. Share your stories with us, so we can pull them together and amplify them throughout the state.

We’re all in this together, whether we want to be or not. Our state’s and country’s economy, food system and survival depend on rural Iowa. So tell us: Is your community worth saving? Why? Where are our rural areas thriving? What can we learn from them?

We’re listening.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.