Recently, The New York Times published an interactive article on its website that examines the plight of rural America.
Reporter Eduardo Porter, who has written a forthcoming book on the subject, points to the difficulties our nation faces in these areas.
“There are 60 million people, almost one in five Americans, living on farms, in hamlets and in small towns across the landscape. For the last quarter century the story of these places has been one of relentless economic decline,” he writes.
Consider how much farming has changed in Vermont in that time. Between advances in technology and equipment, new regulations, the cost of milk and the push for organic products (and subsequent marketing), farming has evolved considerably.
And farmers here will tell you so.
None of this is news to them. They have been fighting for years to reverse the trend.
According to the Times article, there have been additional shifts affecting the farming sector.
“Rural America is getting old. The median age is 43, seven years older than city dwellers. Its productivity, defined as output per worker, is lower than urban America’s. Its families have lower incomes. And its share of the population is shrinking: the United States has grown by 75 million people since 1990, but this has mostly occurred in cities and suburbs. Rural areas have lost some 3 million people. Since the 1990s, problems such as crime and opioid abuse, once associated with urban areas, are increasingly rural phenomena,” Porter writes.
Again, while the numbers are proportional, Vermont has seen the same shifts, and it is hurting.
Nationally, rural communities once captured a greater share of the nation’s prosperity. “Jobs and wages in small town America played catch-up with big cities until the mid 1980s. During the economic recovery of 1992 to 1996, 135,000 new businesses were started in small counties, a third of the nation’s total. Employment in small counties shot up by 2.5 million, or 16 percent, twice the pace experienced in counties with million-plus populations,” Porter noted.
“These days, economic growth bypasses rural economies. In the first four years of the recovery after the 2008 recession, counties with fewer than 100,000 people lost 17,500 businesses, according to the Economic Innovation Group. By contrast, counties with more than 1 million residents added, altogether, 99,000 firms. By 2017, the largest metropolitan areas had almost 10 percent more jobs than they did at the start of the financial crisis. Rural areas still had fewer.”
One expert has characterized that as “ruralization of distress.”
It is disheartening. It is as though the farm falls through the economic cracks to the realm of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Porter’s article concluded: No one knows quite how to pick rural America up.
“States, municipalities and the federal government have spent billions to draw jobs and prosperity to stagnant rural areas. But they haven’t yet figured out how to hitch this vast swath of the country to the tech-heavy economy that is flourishing in America’s cities,” he writes.
There are 1,888 counties in America in which more than half the population is rural, according to the Census Bureau, and they stretch from coast to coast.
Maybe, the Times article notes, maybe there is hope on the horizon.
In a report published in November, Mark Muro, William Galston and Clara Hendrickson, of the Brookings Institution, laid out a portfolio of ideas to rescue the substantial swath of the country that they identify as “left behind.” They identify critical shortages bedeviling declining communities: workers with digital skills, broadband connections, capital. And they have plans to address them: I.T. training and education initiatives, regulatory changes to boost lending to small businesses, incentives to invest in broadband.
All of that comes down to making our farms a priority again. Here in Vermont, we take great pride in the working landscape and the efforts — at all levels — being done to keep Vermont farms sustainable.
But the nation as a whole has a lot of work to do to follow our lead and reprogram their thinking.
And, like every struggling sector, it needs to appeal to the next generation. And the next.
There is nothing easy about farming. And rural America is depending on states, like ours, who can hold farming up as an added value — a true asset to the economic portfolio.
The distress of 50 million Americans should concern everyone.
“Powerful economic forces are arrayed against rural America,” Porter notes.
The answers farmers need can’t wait.