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The Rural Dilemma
by Thomas D. Rowley and David Freshwater

"…the social and economic institutions of the open country are not keeping pace with the development of the nation as a whole."

Such were the words of President Theodore Roosevelt in appointing the Country Life Commission to consider, and propose solutions to, the so-called "rural problem." The year was 1908. Had the Commission—an august group of scientists, educators, farmers, and businessmen—also included a soothsayer, it might well have labeled the object of their attention the "rural dilemma," and rightly so. One century, countless programs, and trillions of dollars later, Roosevelt's words still hold. For many of rural America's ailments, satisfactory solutions remain to be found; the "problem" may well be a "dilemma." Worse, one might even make the argument that "rural development" is, in fact, an oxymoron. That is, that development, in the spatial realm, leads to (and is therefore ultimately equivalent to) urbanization: to develop is to no longer be rural; to remain rural is to remain undeveloped. While accepting this construct would equate to painting Dante's "All hope abandon, ye who enter here" above the entrance to rural America, development—if somehow attainable—does at the very least present rural America with a host of difficult choices.

Cause for Concern?

Why does (and should) an urban/suburban nation care about its rural areas?

At the most mundane level, there is the matter of size: 55 million people, 28 million jobs, 13,000 local governments, and 2,288 counties. Finally of course, there is land. According to the most common governmental definition of rural America, it contains 83 percent of U.S. land (a large portion of it owned not by private rural interests, but collectively by the citizens—urban and rural—of the nation). And on that land is found the bulk of this nation's natural resources: its forests, mountains, streams, deserts, canyons, lakes, and cropland and the wildlife that live there, the treatment of which today elicits great scrutiny.

In a world made ever smaller by scientific discovery and by ubiquitous, nearly instantaneous media coverage, the concern and involvement of people living at great distance from the site of environmental issues is at an all-time high. Decisions that once were the sole province of people in the region now elicit participation from around the globe. Witness, for example, the contentious and voluminous battles surrounding the deleterious effects of timbering on owls, owls on loggers, dams on salmon, wolves on cattle, cattle on streams, and on and on. Clearly, people other than those whose day-to-day lives are directly affected by these and other environmental challenges—that is, urban and suburban people—care a great deal.

Another reason urbanites care about rural areas stems from the image of small town living a la Norman Rockwell and Sheriff Andy Taylor. In this popular stereotype, friendliness, morality, and a saner pace of life prevail. As such, the small town is a powerful icon tugging at our collective heartstrings. For many, it represents the very essence of "community"—a near-mythical entity that elicits both longing and praise.

For others, the importance of small towns goes even further, representing the very foundation of society. The late journalist and author Richard Critchfield argued that "rural life is the source, and the only source, of such aspects of our culture as religious beliefs, the agricultural moral code, the institutions of family and property, and the work ethic."

While not necessarily validating such a heroic claim, survey results do confirm the positive opinions Americans have about small town living. In a 1992 national poll, the Roper Organization found that a majority of people questioned (most of whom were urbanites) felt that rural communities had friendlier people, better personal values, a stronger sense of family, better quality of life, better community spirit, and greater honesty in business. In addition, half believed that rural people are more religious. On that note, a 1993 survey by the National Opinion Research Center found that rural people were much more likely than urban to identify themselves as religious fundamentalists, believe in life after death, oppose abortion, and regard homosexuality as wrong. For some, these conservative religious and political stands are further evidence that rural America is the moral backbone of the nation, and her people the "…bulwark against foreign 'isms and crackpot programs" that Ezra Benson, Eisenhower's Secretary of Agriculture, claimed.

Finally, according to USDA's Calvin Beale, the dean of rural demographers, "The favorable attributes ascribed to rural America and its people constitute an ideal list of four-square virtues. To the extent that these virtues are not attributed as commonly to big city people, it is no great leap to conclude that the urban majority itself finds some consolation and hope in the belief that such virtues still prevail at least somewhere in the nation."

Given these values, it should come as no surprise that since the 1940s, survey after survey has shown that more Americans would prefer to live in rural and small towns than actually do. And today, more and more of those Americans are acting on those preferences: from 1990 to 1999, 2.2 million more Americans moved from the city to the country than the reverse. Indeed, three-quarters of all rural counties added people. Places with mountains, lakes, seashores, and nice climates are, naturally, the most popular destinations.

U.S. map of rural-urban continuum codes, 1993.
Rural-urban continuum (Census-based rural vs. urban land)

The reasons for the urban to rural migration vary, of course, from place to place and person to person. Contributing factors, however, include the attributes described above, a desire to get away from the congestion and social ills of the city and suburbs, and the freedom to relocate afforded by advances in telecommunications and the wealth generated by the nation's long-running economic expansion. As a result, many people and businesses are now able to locate nearly anywhere they choose. And for more and more of them, "anywhere" is the countryside and small towns. Clearly, Americans—not just rural ones—care about rural America.

The Dilemma

To be sure, there has been progress in rural America since the Country Life Commission. On average, rural Americans have narrowed many of the social and economic gaps between themselves and their urban counterparts. Rural roads, water, sewer, electricity, and phone service have all improved dramatically. Most rural families are better housed than ever before. And high school graduation rates for rural and urban students are nearly equal. Nevertheless, significant deficiencies remain. Wages and income are lower. Educational attainment is lower. Access to health care is lower. Unemployment rates are higher. Dependence on governmental transfer payments is higher. And perhaps worst of all, poverty rates are higher—significantly higher—in rural America.

Why have we failed to vanquish these heads of the rural Hydra? It hasn't been for lack of bureaucratic effort. From the creation of the USDA in 1862 to the Country Life Commission at the turn of the century, the New Deal of the 1930s, the War on Poverty in the 1960s, and the National Rural Development Partnership of the 1980s and 90s, the federal government has tried to improve conditions in the countryside. The federal effort has been so large, in fact, that according to the General Accounting Office, some 828 federal programs directed assistance to rural areas between 1983 and 1992. Breaking that number down a bit, recent studies have found that any given rural community may be eligible for as many as 30 separate federal programs. Obviously, those programs translate into dollars. In 1997 the federal government spent over $250 billion in rural areas, more than $4,800 per person—a lot of money, but less than the $5,300 spent on urban dwellers.

Far from indicating a lack of trying, what these numbers show instead is just how ineffective our efforts have been—efforts characterized by "programs that aren't well targeted or administered; overlap and redundancy; and a lot of wrong-headed pork that is maintained via bureaucratic inertia and politics," according to David Brown, professor of rural sociology at Cornell and president of the Rural Sociological Society.

In all fairness, implementing an effective federal rural development policy is extremely difficult, as is evidenced by the fact that the other developed countries face many of the same issues with their rural areas and have done no better in dealing with them. Three factors contribute to the difficulty. First, rural areas and their needs are extremely diverse. One policy will not do the trick, yet creating separate, individual policies to meet the diverse needs of individual places is completely unworkable. Second, development takes time, and the efforts described above notwithstanding, the U.S. government has not—other than brief periods in the 1930s and 1960s—managed to sustain a coordinated and systematic effort to promote economic development-rural or otherwise. Finally, there is precious little agreement on just what rural development is, anyway. For example, some argue it is synonymous with economic growth, while others believe that development is more about quality than quantity.

As if all of that were not enough to ensure that the dilemma remains, there is another, perhaps even more difficult, dimension to the dilemma—one that is growing.

The Dilemma II, Urban Rulz

The most widely used official definition of rural defines not what it is, but rather what it is not, namely: urban. Rural under this definition is officially designated non-metropolitan and is—you guessed it—everything that is not metropolitan, the residual, the leftover. If urban is the doughnut, rural is the hole. The blow to rural pride notwithstanding, defining rural as not city isn't nearly as damaging as defining rural by the city.

Urban and suburban residents outnumber rural residents four to one. In addition to sheer numbers-and the votes that go with them—they earn higher wages on average, meaning they also have more money. Finally, the federal government—and by extension urban and suburban citizens, as well as rural citizens—owns a significant amount of rural America, particularly in the western half of the country. Nationwide, the federal government owns some 30 percent of U.S. land, the vast majority of it rural. In western states, those percentages climb much higher. In Nevada, for example, 75 percent of the land belongs to the federal government. In Utah and Idaho, more than 60 percent.

In the past, federal ownership did not matter much to rural residents. Indeed, it was seen by those in the rural west as a benefit—they didn't have to pay for improvements or maintenance or even buy the property. The land was theirs for the using. Now, however, the urban majority is not only exercising its rights as landlord and changing the rules, it is also extending new rules to land and resources it doesn't own. And while many of these new rules reflect efforts to maintain the value of resources and stem from clear evidence that rural residents were at times less than prudent in their management of the land, others simply reflect a completely different set of priorities. As a result, behavioral patterns and local economies that have been in place for generations are being disrupted, if not killed outright.

To the chagrin of many rural residents, what city folks think about rural America—what they believe to be true about it and what they want to happen with it—counts for a lot (often more even than what rural folks think, believe, and want) both in the marketplace and in the policy arena. Trouble? You better believe it. The dangers in a rural agenda driven by non-rural people are many.


First among the dangers are the misperceptions that can easily be held by people physically distant from the reality—misperceptions based on glimpses of rural life caught through the lenses of history, television, and vacations to the dude ranch, misperceptions that lead to wrong-headed policies and misdirected resources. Urban sociologist John Logan puts it this way: "Rural America has the special advantage of being the place where most of us don't live anymore, which frees us to reconstruct it in our imagination." Consequently, "a large share of what we value is the mythology and symbolism of rural places, rather than their reality." One of the greatest misperceptions lies in the economic realm.

Ask the average person on the street what comes to mind upon hearing the word rural and you will almost certainly get farming or agriculture. Indeed, the notion that the rural economy is a farm economy is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. The notion, however, is wrong. Today, USDA counts only 2.2 million places as farms and only 1.1 million people list farming as their principle job. And as important as those men and women are to their communities and to the country, they represent only 6 percent of rural jobs. Add in agricultural services, forestry, and fishing, and the percentage only goes to 8 percent. Add in agricultural inputs, processing and marketing of agricultural products, wholesale and retail trade of those products, and something called indirect agribusiness, and the number gets up to 23 percent—still less than 1 in 4 rural jobs. That percentage varies, of course; some regions depend more heavily on farm jobs than others. Nebraska for example, has the largest share of farm-related jobs, with 32 percent.

Given the high incidence of off-farm employment, quite a bit of farmers' income comes from off-farm work. In fact, more than 80 percent of the total income earned by farm operator households across the nation comes from work other than farming, and fewer than one-fourth of farm families get the majority of their income from farming.

These statistics notwithstanding, the misperception persists in both the popular and political realms. Indeed, Congress has just begun its quinquennial deliberation on the nation's agricultural policy: the Farm Bill, its flagship effort on rural America. And therein lies the problem. Legislation that purports to strengthen all of rural America will focus primarily on only one sector of rural life-farming. Yes, the Farm Bill will likely contain a Rural Development Title buried in the 20 to 30 other titles pertaining to agricultural payments, agricultural research, agricultural marketing, agricultural exports, and so on and so on. But the very fact that the Rural Development Title is part of the Farm Bill rather than the other way around goes far beyond semantics and the organizational idiosyncrasies of the legislative process; it indicates the mindset (and power politics) on Capitol Hill.

According to Richard Long, former head of USDA's rural economic research division, "Historically, spending for farm programs has far exceeded spending for rural economic development programs, such as loans for community facilities and private business investors in sectors other than agriculture. Farmers now constitute less than 10 percent of the rural work force, but they have captured the lion's share of the benefits." To the detriment of most rural areas, the phrase that "all rural development needs is ten-dollar cotton and five-dollar corn" is still a popular refrain and many a Representative and Senator sings it.

To be fair, it isn't simply a matter of misperception. While members of Congress, like the rest of us, are susceptible to the nostalgic associations and images that influence one's thinking, they are also subject to the persuasive efforts of a very powerful agriculture lobby. Lee Hamilton, former Congressman from Indiana knows well the influence that lobby exerts. "The American farmer is enormously popular in the Congress and in the Executive Branch as well. And even though farmers are a very small percentage of the population, and one that is getting smaller every year, they retain political clout that far exceeds their numbers." Compared to the farm lobby, non-farm rural development groups have little money, little unity, and little sway over policy.

Richard Reeder, USDA economist, points out another weakness in the system: geography. "Because rural Americans are only a fraction of total population, most of their political leverage is in the Senate, where representation is not based on population. However, most of the States where rural Americans have a majority or a near majority are farm-dependent states. Hence, the part of the federal government which has the greatest rural political clout—the Senate—also has the greatest farm bias."

Policy missteps do not confine themselves to Capitol Hill, however. Rather they trudge right down the avenues of Washington and in the doors of the various executive branches, especially the United States Department of Agriculture.

Created in 1862 under President Lincoln as "the people's department," USDA has long occupied the dominant position in the federal bureaucracy on things rural. It held this position, naturally enough, because of the historical nexus between agriculture and rural areas. As the role of agriculture in rural areas has waned, however, so has USDA's dominance. By USDA's own calculations, today only 10 percent of federal funds going to rural America come from USDA—the majority of which are spent on agriculture.

In spite of its surprisingly small share of the federal effort, USDA is charged by law with coordinating federal rural development efforts. That it has failed to live up to this mandate is testament to both the difficulty of the task—coordinating umpteen agencies and 828 programs is no mean feat—but also to what many observers perceive as rural development's second-class citizenship within the department. Again, former USDA official Richard Long, "Up to now [USDA] has been more faithful to the interests of an ever-shrinking farm sector than to the vastly larger rural population. Its record of leadership in rural development at almost every level, from recent secretaries to the local extension service, has been abysmal. A useful step would be for the USDA, which has failed to distinguish its rural development mission from its commitment to the farm sector, to pass its rural leadership responsibility to another federal agency…"

In fairness to USDA, even if it had tried valiantly to define and implement an integrated federal rural development strategy, the odds of success would have been very low. While USDA is charged by statute with coordinating the federal effort, it has next to no ability to carry out this mandate. As the importance of agriculture to the nation as an economic activity and as the share of population working in agriculture both decline, so too does USDA's power. While the Secretary of Agriculture is one of the more senior cabinet officers in terms of when the position was created, it is now one of the minor cabinet appointments—arguably less influential than even some non-cabinet positions such as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, or head of the Food and Drug Administration. Add this to the fact that coordination entails working with heavy hitters in the defense and treasury departments as well as bigger departments, like housing and labor, and the futility of having USDA coordinate the national response to rural problems becomes evident.

This suggests that absent a strong interest by the president in defining and implementing a coordinated rural program, it simply will not happen. And as time passes, the likelihood of a president embracing this challenge dwindles. One consequence of an increasingly urban nation is a reduced chance of the president having any real knowledge of rural America. In addition, without a greater consensus on what people in both rural and urban areas want for, and from, rural America, there is little chance of any presidential action leading to better results than we have seen to date.

Equally importantly, most rural people do not think of USDA as having anything to do with their well-being. Rural issues that are not farm related are taken to the agencies with responsibility for those issues. People interested in rural health look first to the Department of Health and Human Services for assistance, worker issues go to labor, and so on. For these agencies, however, rural problems are a minor concern. Consequently, when rural problems make it onto their radar screens, these federal bureaucracies generally respond by calling upon an existing program that was developed to address urban needs.

It is worth noting that the federal government isn't the only player in rural development. The devolution of responsibilities from the federal government to the states and even local governments makes for what former USDA Undersecretary Karl Stauber refers to as a layer cake of programs, which is beyond the effective control of any federal entity. Indeed, when asked to comment on the use of partnerships—the policy approach du jour—to coordinate rural development efforts in the United States, a French observer put his finger on it: "You have created a disease for which partnership is the only cure." None of which lets USDA completely off the hook, given its lack of appreciation for, and use of, the best available mechanism for coordination: a collaboration for rural development among federal, state, local, and tribal governments and the private sector known as the National Rural Development Partnership. Indeed, Clinton appointees at USDA (the partnership was created under President Bush the elder) gave support to the partnership only grudgingly more often than not, and seemed more inclined to control it rather than to collaborate with it. Perhaps President Bush the younger will be more inclined to embrace it, given its genesis.

And More Misperceptions

Damaging as equating rural with farming is, other misperceptions abound. Reality is seldom as simple as it first appears. Take for example that Rockwellian image of rural America. While small town living differs in many ways from the hustle and bustle, congestion and frustration of urban and suburban life, the truth of rural life is not exactly as it appears on the artist's canvas. For instance, the conservative values found in rural areas—the religious and political stands and "four-square virtues"—are, for some, the vertebrae in the moral backbone of the nation. For others, however, such conservatism looks more like backward thinking and red necks.

To be sure, this less charitable view of small town and rural inhabitants is not based solely on conservatism. The educational and socioeconomic status of rural people—historically lower on average than that of urban dwellers—also comes into play. Still, the weight of the designation hick seems to rest primarily on beliefs and attitudes that run counter to the critics' notions of progress. According to Beale, "Given the image of metropolises as the sources of progress, and the reality that they now contain three-quarters of the U.S. population, there would seem little hope that rural America can avoid the slightly declasse, somewhat out-of-the-loop social status that most urban Americans probably consign it to, whether consciously or not."

The contrasting images of rural America as bastion of virtue and holder of declasse status, if not holdover of backwardness, are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The two can live side by side, if a bit uncomfortably. Far more difficulty comes, however, in squaring that idyllic, virtuous image with the realities of crime, teen pregnancy, drugs, and other social ills that know no geographic boundaries. While data are hard to come by, research suggests that little difference exists between rural and urban rates of alcohol and drug use by youths, births to teen mothers, and domestic violence. And while overall rural crime rates remain lower than urban rates, from 1960 to 1989 they increased nearly as fast as did urban. In fact, while the rate of violent crime decreased in urban areas in 1992 and 1993, it increased in rural ones.

Another blemish on the wholesome face of rural America results from the presence of various fringe groups—some downright dangerous. According to Catherine McNicol Stock, author of Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain, " For the past 50 years, we have blamed most domestic discord on problems associated with urban life, but for hundreds of years—and even in this century-the concerns of rural men and women have also often heated to the boiling point." As examples, McNicol Stock lists such famous revolutionary figures as Ethan Allen who, disgusted with the new country's leaders, asked Great Britain to recognize the Republic of New Connecticut as an independent nation, and Daniel Shay, leader of the famed Shay's Rebellion. While it may give heartburn to some to compare the likes of Allen and Shay with the yahoos out in west Texas who decided to reestablish "the Republic" a couple of years back or the militia cum hate groups that have taken up residence in the inter-mountain west, there is, McNicol Stock points out, a rich history of rural rebels—some that "emptied jails, burned public buildings, closed court systems, and organized their own governmental institutions." In fact, she argues persuasively that the unique rural blend of independence, isolation, and anger at perceived (and sometimes actual) detrimental treatment by the government provides fertile ground for such rebellion.

Clearly, the rural reality is more complex than society's perception of it. It has problems—other than those down on the farm—that need attention. Owing in part to misperception, however, attention to rural problems such as high poverty rates, poor educational attainment, and lack of infrastructure and services is not what it should be.


The second danger of an urban-driven rural agenda is much more concrete than the first, literally. On the surface, the popularity that many rural areas now enjoy as magnets for urban emigrants seems a boon: new residents pay taxes, buy goods and services, and create jobs. In addition, they bring so-called "human capital"—education, experience, and abilities—to the community that can benefit all.

Below the surface, however, lurks a downside. With all the good that they bring, new residents also bring some bad. They increase demand on the often limited capacity of rural schools, roads, and sewer plants, sometimes necessitating lengthy and costly expansions paid for by raising taxes on everyone—long-time residents included. They bring with them different ideas about how government should work and how people should live, challenging the "old way" of doing things and creating tension and conflict. In fact, in large enough numbers, their very arrival can forever alter the nature of the rural area that attracted them, creating congestion where there was none, polluting once clean air and water, raising land prices so high that all but the rich are forced to move, and erecting houses, strip malls, and fast food joints on formerly open ground. In short, the growth that many rural areas have for years coveted, the growth that brings tax revenues, jobs, and for many places, hope, is transforming some of those areas into something that neither long-time residents nor newcomers wish to see—little patches of suburbia.

U.S. map of natural amenities scale.

The natural amenities scale is a measure of the physical characteristics of a county area that enhance the location as a place to live. The index was constructed by combining six measures of climate, typography, and water area that reflect environmental qualities most people prefer. These measures are warm winter, winter sun, temperate summer, low summer humidity, topographic variation, and water area.


Rural areas have always been a source of commodities. From the continent's earliest inhabitants who found their entire subsistence there, to later ones who took from it pelts, then crops, timber, and minerals, untold millions have eaten, worn, and taken shelter in the produce of rural America. In turn, those same commodities have been the lifeblood of rural communities, the growing, harvesting, and mining of them often the only game in town, often with less than favorable results. Boom and bust cycles, absentee ownership, price-killing competition, labor-replacing mechanization, and regulatory constraint all play a role in the history of rural commodity production.

While demand for, and hence production of, those traditional commodities continues, another rural commodity is now for sale—one that in many respects overshadows the others. Rurality itself-in ways ranging from tourism to demand for wilderness preservation to the enormous popularity of off-road vehicles that never leave a city street—is becoming a commodity. And that is a double-edged sword. While demand for rurality puts money in the pockets of some in rural America, there are strings attached.

In his new book, The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life is a Paid-For Experience, Jeremy Rifkin describes a grand shift in our world, one in which ownership is replaced by access, and the production of goods and services by the production of culture. While Rifkin does not delve into the rural implications of these shifts, he does provide a poignant, and illustrative, example:

When traditional folkdance is performed in an Irish village, for example, it conveys deeply felt expressions of shared meaning among the participants. But when performed on stage or on television 5,000 miles away to a general audience, it becomes little more than entertainment. Stripped of geographic context, the cultural expression becomes a shadow of the total experience. Although it can be enjoyed and even appreciated by others, it can't evoke the deep feeling of place, which is, after all, what the dance is all about.

This "shadow of the total experience" pertains to many aspects of rurality demanded today by a largely urban and suburban market. Tourism, one of the fastest growing industries worldwide and a favorite rural development scheme, certainly sells but a shadow of the total rural experience, often at high cost to the social and environmental fabric of the favored area. Visitors come and pay for access to a particular slice of rural life, be it a park, a dude ranch, or a historic mining camp. In the process, however, they require roads, lodging, bathrooms, and endless craft shops—all of which brings jobs and income to the area, but at what price? Like suburbanization, tourism can, in its extreme, kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Rural areas can be turned into rustic Disneylands, devoid of anything real, with residents forced to don costumes and greet visitors with a customer-friendly, "Howdy y'all."

Granted, some rural areas, plagued by out-migration, poverty, and other desperate situations, would jump at the chance to put on the straw-hat equivalent of Mickey Mouse ears. Unfortunately, such places typically lack the amenities—good climate, water, and hills or mountains—that will bring them any action; they must find other ways to snag a golden egg or two.

Likewise, demand for wilderness preservation is for but a piece of rural life and can as a result be quite disruptive. The hackneyed version, of course, pits urban environmentalists against rural loggers, ranchers, or miners—those who seek to preserve or protect versus those who seek to earn a living. Because environmental amenities are what economists call "luxury goods"—things that people want more of as their incomes rise—increasing urban wealth will likely translate to increasing conflict.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, urbanites have other, albeit contradictory, values for rural environs. First, urbanites still demand the lumber, gold, oil, electricity, and food that those environs produce, often with harm to the land and its inhabitants. Second, urbanites demand a receptacle for the unwanted. Be it trash, prisons, missile sites, or nuclear waste, urban areas depend on rural lands to store that which is dangerous, noxious, or just plain offensive.

None of which is to say that rural dwellers appreciate and desire environmental quality any less than city folks do, nor that they do not use the products of the land themselves, nor fail to understand the logic of storing potentially dangerous materials away from large population centers. Still, the calculus for rural areas is far more complicated and the costs to rural areas disproportionate, for it is they, not urban and suburban areas whose jobs, communities, and cultures, as well as environment, hang in the balance. To borrow from Rifkin, urban and suburban access to but a shadow of the total rural experience, is indeed a double-edged sword. Money comes, but much else goes away. Arriving at decisions that satisfy both urban and rural dwellers is dilemmatic.

What Do We Want?

Such a gloom-and-doom analysis may well prompt the question: What, then, is the use in trying? Indeed, there are those who would pull the plug of governmental assistance and let rural areas sink or swim in the waters of the free market. Others would take a bit softer approach, assessing the survival chances of rural areas and giving help to those with the best chance of making it, community triage if you will. Still others see the need—out of a sense of charity if nothing else—for helping all rural people and places. As the last 100 years illustrate, however, that is indeed a tall order; something must be done differently if the efforts are to succeed.

Among the suggestions for "doing things differently" that warrant consideration are replacing USDA as the lead agency for rural development; removing the rural development title from the farm bill; wrenching control of rural legislation from the agricultural committees of Congress; and increasing support for the National Rural Development Partnership. Each of these ideas has merit and might make a dent in the dilemma—a small dent.

Like rearranging the proverbial deck chairs, organizational changes can only do so much. The answer to the rural dilemma, if in fact there is one, will be found only by finally coming to terms with what we as a nation want our rural areas to be. If we want them to be sources of cheap commodities, then the people who provide those commodities (if humans are even involved in production) will be low-wage labor. If we desire pristine wilderness, then people will not fit at all. If receptacles for our refuse are what we seek, then trash heaps are what we will get. What we want (and what we are willing to pay for) will go a long way in determining what we get. More than ever, however, we are either urban/suburban dwellers calling the shots for places where we do not live or newly ensconced rural dwellers attempting to call the shots for places we now proudly, if somewhat hollowly, call home. Consequently, we have a lot of work to do building a consensus that can bring about meaningful improvements.

Can it be done? The battle is decidedly uphill. Misperceptions, conflicting values, and, of course, passions run deep. On top of that are the mistrust that many rural folks feel toward urban interests and governments that at times have subjugated and exploited rural people and places. Finally, there remains the question: Can rural areas develop and still retain the essential qualities of rurality?

Is it worth doing? It is hard to see how we as a society could walk away from rural America. It is, after all, a place of great worth—historic, symbolic, natural, and otherwise—to us. Moreover, if we cannot (or will not) solve the problems of our own rural backyard, how can we presume to champion the American model to countries with even greater problems? Closer to home, how can we prevent those rural problems from becoming urban and suburban problems? (The urban riots of the 1960s remain an unpleasant reminder of what can happen when large numbers of rural disadvantaged make their way to urban centers in search of opportunities and find none—a prospect which is made even more likely given the higher skill requirements of the modern economy.) So, while the Country Life Commission may have been reaching a bit when it said, "We need the development of men in the open country, who will be in the future, as in the past, the stay and strength of the Nation in time of war, and its guiding and controlling spirit in time of peace," Kentucky author, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry, seems to have gotten it just about right:

Why this interest in 'linkages between urban and rural citizens' that has been growing in our state, and in the nation, over the past several years? I think it is because urban and rural people have begun to realize that they share the same land, and therefore the same fate. I think they have begun to realize that to divide the human community up into 'competing interests' finally doesn't work because finally it is a false version of reality.


Thomas D. Rowley is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. His clients include the TVA Rural Studies Program at the University of Kentucky, the Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, the Kentucky League of Cities, the National Governors' Association, and the federal Office of Rural Health Policy. He is also an editor of the journal Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy. He writes on a wide range of topics including rural issues, the new economy, land use policies, and health care. He also writes humor and fiction.
David Freshwater is a professor at the University of Kentucky with appointments in the Department of Agricultural Economics and in the Martin School of Public Administration and Public Policy. His main research areas are rural economic development and rural finance. He is also the program manager of the TVA Rural Studies Program, a rural development research center created by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of Kentucky. TVA Rural Studies focuses on providing economic development research to leaders in rural communities in the Tennessee Valley.

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Center for Rural Affairs

National Rural Development Partnership

Northwest Area Foundation

Rural Development Online, U.S.D.A.

Rural Economic Development Links, Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce

Rural Policy Research Institute

State Rural Fact Sheets, Economic Research Service, U.S.D.A.

U.S. Department of Agriculture


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