Is Rural America Dying?

What are the facts?


Part 1 of a Series


By Marijo Vik

Times/Graphic reporter


The report of my death was an exaggeration,” American author and humorist Mark Twain said after his obituary was mistakenly published in the New York Journal in 1897.


Headlines and book titles have proclaimed the demise of rural places for nearly 25 years.


At first glance, some of those books titles might include: The Decline of Rural Minnesota by Joseph A. Amato and John Meyer (1993); Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding (2009); Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What it Means for America by Patrick J. Carr and Maria Kefalas (2009); and Vanishing Hardwoods in Rural America by (2010).


However, those titles don’t necessarily reflect the content of the books. Methland is about a small town in Iowa that fought an influx of drugs. Vanishing Hardwoods lists old basketball courts remembered by a former coach.


Perhaps, like Twain’s wrongly-published obituary, the anecdotal stories of rural America’s death are premature.


How can we know? By looking at the data.


At a presentation Feb. 7, 2018, in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Ben Winchester from the University of Minnesota said, “The title of my presentation is ‘Rewriting the Rural Narrative’ and the premise behind my talk is that the narrative we’re using to describe our small towns is straight out of the 1950s.”


Winchester said, “We haven’t had a good idea about how that narrative impacts everything we do in our communities, and everything our children hear, and everything our seniors hear, and everything our visitors hear. The subtitle here is ‘Speak Softly and Carry Statistics.’”


Winchester began studying the statistics a number of years ago when he attended graduate school in Missouri.


“Everything seemed to be doom and gloom,” he said, “It was about out-migration, it was about our dying towns, we’re losing our churches, we’re losing our schools. I quickly realized that our future wasn’t so bleak, but we keep describing ourselves in a very negative light. And it starts to get to you after a while.”


Winchester said, “I was trained at the University of Minnesota Morris in statistics. Data started to consume my life. I’m a data geek. I love data, but I know a lot of you don’t. So hopefully all the data you see here will be consumable for you.”


“No more anecdata,” Winchester said. “Anecdata is information which is presented as if it is based on serious research but is in fact based on what someone thinks is true.”


Ask yourself these questions. Where does the current negative rural narrative come from? Who propagates it? How is it used? How can we change it?


Winchester went into a short history lesson for the period from 1900 to 1950.


According to Winchester, the mechanization of agriculture dramatically reduced the number of people needed and only one in eight workers remained on the farm.


With the rise of better roads and automobiles, no town was a “one stop shop” anymore. You could more easily go from one town to another without a full-day buggy ride.


After World War II, the GI bill helped bring education to more rural residents than had ever been seen before.


We started to see a wave of church closings which was the real marker of social change because instead of the one big church of a single denomination in a town it became several smaller churches from different denominations. The narrative around that event was, “Our church is closing. Our town will die,” Winchester said. “But it didn’t happen.”


From 1950 to 1990, more dramatic changes occurred.


Winchester said, “There was Main Street restructuring. Again, because of the rise of transportation systems, not every town was successful. We saw the rise of regional centers, like Alexandria, Willmar and others across the state. And across the world, we saw globalization. So it was the impact of transportation and also the impact of globalization. It was economy of scale, and small towns couldn’t compete with ‘big box’ retailers. For price reasons, people would go to other places. This became a visual aspect of small towns. When you see a boarded up building that has a visual impact on what you think is happening.”


“School consolidations took over,” Winchester said, “especially in the 80s and 90s. That has slowed now and our school enrollments have leveled off and we expect to see increases. So we weathered that storm, but when you look at the headlines, it was ‘We’re closing our school and our town is taking a right turn into the ditch.’”


“Hospitals and clinics closed and now we’re talking about post offices,” Winchester said.


“Is the idea that if something is going to close or move, your town is going to die?” Winchester asked.


“There was a quote from a newspaper in northern Minnesota,” Winchester said. “It said, ‘Our post office is being closed and it’s the social hub of our community.’ I think there’s some liberties taken to say your post office is the social hub of your town.”


“When a reporter or author goes to a small town in the afternoon, who are they going to meet?” Winchester asked. “They’re not going to meet the people who are working. They’re probably going to meet the people who are retired. And they’re having coffee together in the café/convenience store/hair stylist/car sales location.”


And what is their narrative?


“There are challenges with the changes we’ve seen across our rural areas,” Winchester said. “That’s a fact. But we have this idyllic notion about what ‘rural’ is. I lived in Hancock for 12 years and every day when I drove up to Morris, there were corn and soybeans, corn and soybeans, corn and soybeans and you would think, ‘This is an agricultural community.’”


 “But don’t let the visuals confuse you,” Winchester said. “The rural economy has not been dependent on agriculture in over 25 years, and in some places, it’s been 40 years, well before I began my studies. People’s experiences limit what they see. I saw this (farming) day after day, but the data kept telling me a different story.”


“The data told me that transfer payments make up one in five dollars to your community,” Winchester said. “Entrepreneurship makes up 20 percent of the dollars in your town.”


A transfer payment is one-way payment of money for which no money, good or service is received in exchange. Governments use such payments as means of income redistribution by giving out money under social welfare programs, Social Security, student grants, unemployment compensation, and so forth.


Subsidies paid to exporters, farmers and manufacturers, however, are not considered transfer payments. Transfer payments are excluded in computing gross national product.


Winchester said. “All of these aspects of small towns became challenged. So I’m here to say that we do want to talk about the changes that are occurring. But we need to get away from the notion that if something is going to change in a small town that town will die.”


“Our churches closed and our hardware stores closed,” Winchester said. “So show me all the dead towns. In Minnesota, only three towns have dissolved in the past 75 years.”