Rural Depopulation

The People's ChoiceOne of the themes from Joe Bageant’s memoirs, Rainbow Pie, that struck me as fascinating, was his description of rural folks leaving the country and moving in to medium and large sized towns. This is largely what happened to my father’s side of the family, as they left the Hill Country after WWII, but to this day I still have a very strong emotional attachment to the land and people there.

The standard narrative is that this was the triumph of industrial capitalism moving small farmers off the land into real, prosperous jobs. Ask Susan Broussard and her husband what they think of that narrative and you’ll get a rich snort of derision.

I’ve been crossing Texas for a week. I began in Laredo Sunday and what I’ve seen is nothing less than the wholesale devastation of our small towns. We laud small town values as a matter of public religion, but don’t value small towns at all. Wal-Mart is only the latest assault on small town America. After seeing what I’ve seen the last few days I can really understand why people in “flyover” country hate the government. It does nothing for them, except push them further away from the land, after, of course, it has nickled and dimed them to death with lots of small fees and surcharges and surly bureaucrats. Not to mention agricultural regulations that defy common sense, prop up mega-industrial scale agriculture and destroy small farms. (I’ll post at some point my conversations with Don Henry Ford, Jr. about this and much more.)

Moreover I have been dutifully searching for any small, homestead farmers in rural areas. They don’t exist, outside of one African-American farmer I stopped to talk to outside of Crockett. (He was uncomfortable with photos for good reason. This area of Texas ain’t terribly enlightened.) Today as I pass through more of rural Texas I will endeavor to find and talk to more small farmers.

But back to Joe Bageant. If you look at this photo and read the sign you’ll note something very fascinating. In 1916 taxpayers banded together to build a rural school. That’s rather anodyne, but what isn’t is the year the school closed: 1949. That’s pretty close to the era when Joe Bageant’s family left their small farmstead in rural Virgina for “a better life and work” in the city. It was, as Joe so eloquently wrote, neither better nor much work.

In many rural places the only thing propping up the local economy are chicken farms (note the mobile homes for migrant labor), oil and gas fracking, which only benefits out of town roughnecks and landowners, prisons and old folks homes. We dump our old people in rural communities now because of perverse medicaid incentives.

Not only did this happen in places like Virginia, but also in Texas, ad most certainly in your state.

The first is to halt the decline of rural America. Until then we can’t really talk about restoring it. Are there any solutions?

First, we need better land use policies by large cities, create more urban living, instead of sub and ex-urban incentives. Land use policies also help with watersheds, flooding and even global climate change. The amount of good, fecund agricultural land that has been destroyed by ex-urbanization is criminal and I fear something that has the potential to haunt a globally hotter climate.

We need to change, on a state and federal level, agricultural policy to better benefit smaller farmers and loosen regulations that discourage real farmer’s markets.

The estate tax doesn’t really apply to small farmers, but we can tinker around the edges to make mid-sized farms become more profitable as well, and better able to be bequeathed. I don’t even know where to begin on subsidies. They seem geared towards supporting mega-farmers, anyhow.

A change of rural property taxes based on the agricultural value of land, not based on wealthy suburbanites coming into the country for a tax-write off for exotic game ranches and weekend country homes. The value of the rural land has been inflated out of all proportion to its productive value. And this practice of plopping a dozen cattle on land owned by rich individuals and claimed as agricultural land as a tax write off needs to stop.

So why do rural Americans continue to vote against their own economic interests? I would have to say the most important answer to that question is clearly attachment to a community, no matter how much pressure it is under. Prisons and “retirement centers,” among other inducements, creates a nexus of perverse rural incentives.

Of course, as the above photo of the school shows clearly: education matters too.

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