Dear New York Times Editor:
This last week I read two related NYT opinion articles. The first piece is entitled “Why Rural America Voted for Trump”. It ran January 5, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/05/opinion/why-rural-america-voted-for-trump.html?ref=opinion
The second piece “Vietnam: The War that Killed Trust” ran on January 7, 2017.
The Times is commended on these recent articles. Thank you
Rural America voted for Trump in large numbers not because Americans view others as fundamentally good or bad as the opinion piece suggests. They voted because economically and socially the countryside is challenged by a larger, dominant culture. Rural traditions from firearms ownership to logging, mining, farming and ranching endeavors and outdoor recreational pursuits are confronted by initiatives (laws, regulations, executive orders, court decisions) from the larger, more affluent urban culture. These initiatives are seen by many as disruptive to well established rural traditions and community-based economic opportunity. Reading the comments for this article provides a range of opinion regarding rural people and the country-side. The top NYT pick articulated
Individual Writing from San Jose CA January 5, 2017
You’re asking me to understand people who hate and despise me, my ideas and my tolerance. I do understand. I understand that they have no intellectual curiosity or critical thinking. They are against taxes, but wonder why their roads revert to gravel and why they have to rely on volunteer fire and other services. They think I am lazy. I worked for nearly 50 years, many times 20 hour days. I’m retired, but they resent my drawing SS and Medicare, deeming them “entitlements”. They don’t understand I paid for them from my paycheck just as they do. They do not make the connection. I pay taxes that go disproportionately to states I don’t live in, whose citizens dislike me. I’d like to live in peace with them, but they’re the belligerent ones always on the attack. What is it that I’m missing?
The author presents a series of general perceptions about rural folk:
- Urban populations are despised by those in rural areas
- Rural people are antagonistic and belligerent
- Rural people are ignorant
- They do not pay their fair share for public services
- Rural public services are subsidized by urban populations
- They are against her earned entitlements
I believe the author is sincere in these beliefs. More than likely, however, they have been shaped from an agenda driven media, reprocessing often stated political stereotypes spun by one party operative or another. There is too seldom a solid anchor in fact, because much of the information purveyed appears spun from opinion and partisan ideology.
As a counterpoint to these observations, I live in a rural area at the end of the dirt road and do not find my neighbors to be antagonistic and belligerent.
- Rural folks generally do have fewer college graduates overall but that does not make them ignorant. They have developed skills appropriate for their rural setting. Some, of course, are college graduates.
- They are less service dependent, not relying on high performance emergency services and paved roads. They choose this as their life-style and often take pride in a pioneer spirit.
- My experience is that rural populations are much less concerned with consumption and with “keeping up with the Joneses.” I have found them egalitarian.
- In terms of taxes and services, I served for many years as a city manager in smaller, rural communities. Dollars were scarce, but in a number of instances we placed measures on the ballot and they passed so the funds could be used to improve service delivery.
- This was far from a sure thing – The community expected to understand specific results that were to be achieved from the new tax. The community must agree with the necessity. The definition of necessity may be leaner in rural towns, but one should not live in the countryside because there is an expectation of polished urban-level services.
- I do not understand the constant criticism that urban taxes flow to rural areas to subsidize rural people. In many years working for rural local governments, I did not experience these subsidies. A good portion of these calculations has to do with apportionment. For example, how are inter-state road monies allocated which connect urban hubs? How are National Park appropriations allocated that significantly serve large numbers of urban people? I would be very interested in some understandable detail explain how tax dollars are allocated between rural and urban areas – not just the broad categories of more urban and less urban states.
I have concluded the polarization within the American citizenry is a result of an increasingly dysfunctional system involving a highly antagonistic and ideological politics and a 24/7 media presence drowning Americans in specific non-ameliorative agendas. In this era, there is so much that pulls us apart, scattering outward and inward incoherently and little that binds us as a People unified in common service.
The most recent election was dominated by attacks upon Americans of different cultures. The campaign began with Donald Trump denouncing “Mexican . . . rapists” at the bottom of the Trump Tower escalator while subsequently Hillary Clinton at a Manhattan black tie, civil rights campaign dinner wrote off many Americans as “deplorables” and “irredeemable”. How can any American find anything positive in these narratives from the most powerful leaders in the land? How can we identify as One People aspiring to improve our lives and build a better life for our communities?
Based upon how political networks will develop and the possibility of increasing intra-American alienation, will the countryside over time be written-off by dominant urban population groups increasingly as a extra-urban colony in servitude to large urban populations. Its role may only be to provide resources and managed natural space for visitors and be completely dismissed as a respected player in the American political process. Except for the Electoral College such a result may have been advanced by the most recent Presidential election. Or will rural America recover a respected character as a bastion of independent American tradition and personal enterprise? Will we be able to initiate a useful dialogue that will prudentially address these possibilities?
Donald Trump’s victory has been assigned to rural populations, but these folks are a single element at the tip of the spear (so to speak). According to Rural America at A Glance (USDA, 2016) these smallest counties have only 14% of the population in about 72% of America’s area. To achieve his Electoral College victory, he had to draw from larger groups such as urban and suburban blue-collar and underemployed workers across the nation. His victory was not deep, but instead broad.
Therefore, Mr. Trump’s support is broader and potentially may be best expressed as economic winners and losers. This may be a major result of American private wealth increasingly being concentrated with fewer folks at the top. The concentration places a centripetal pressure on those furthest from the centers of economic/political power, pulling money and power back towards the center, away from the countryside. As the chart below demonstrates, rural areas are slowly recovering from the Great Recession in terms of population growth and employment though rural areas are lagging behind the rate of growth with urban employment.
So what are we to do? While a focus on rural and blue collar populations may be only a passing fancy it does provide a stage for this moment.
In my experience the private market alone has proven inadequate to solve these challenges in many locales for rural populations. The traditional enterprise in rural areas supports modest increases in value from their raw, rural sources. Simply, the rural areas of America now have diminishing economic leverage to increase profit margins supporting new jobs and investment. Dynamic growth is difficult to achieve except in instances of new resource development such as that experienced by North Dakota.
In this regard, the major economic sectors including mining and farming are arduous endeavors. Their product is a raw output which value-addition is achieved through transformation. It is processed or manufactured and then sold retail. For example, checking various agricultural products on-line, this eventual retail mark-up away from the farm may be two-to-three-times the wholesale farm price.
In this age all enterprise, including rural businesses, work to improve positive net profit normally involves automation and other efficiency measures. Therefore, where consistent farm or ranch work may have been generally available in the past, folks find this work more difficult to find now and automation has taken its toll in in the countryside.
Focusing on the agricultural sector, this has been framed as the “family farm”. It has been the noble endeavor of Jefferson’s “sturdy yeoman” and has carried the American imagination for some time as a source of American enterprise and independence.
The United State Department of Agriculture’s America’s Diverse Family Farms 2016 Edition provides insight about the American family farm and farm production. Nearly 90% of the farms are small family farms. All categories of this classification consist of about 1,850,000 farms. These may be retirement farms, or small farmers who work off the farm to make ends meet. Less than 25% of the value of production comes from this category.
Large scale family farms account for the largest share of farm production – about 42%. Each of these farms have annual gross cash farm income of more than $1,000,000 per year and there are only about 54,000 of them in the entire United States.
The conclusion from these facts is presented in US Bureau of Labor Statistics’, “The Changing Face of Farm Employment” (1995): “technological advances have led to larger farms and smaller farm work force . . . .”
Based upon this conclusion, the marginal opportunity in rural communities from resource based endeavors is hard scrabble and difficult. The greatest success is experienced when larger scale farming enterprises are operated. To undertake enterprises in these areas, significant dedication and resilience is required as well as efficiency measures often involving some form of automation to reduce labor costs and employment.
In addition to farming, other sources of income are varied and financially important. Mining is a major sector. There is some in-migration, often from retirees who bring income with them as they seek lower cost of living. Also, there are populations that are involved with services, including private recreational enterprises, and manufacturing and those who exist on very low incomes from various sources including public assistance. Other sources of employment include governmental employment supporting forests and lands, military installations, prisons, and similar facilities. They provide critical jobs for rural folks, but they may pass with the vicissitudes of realignments and closures much the same as private sector manufacturing plants and distribution centers.
For an excellent discussion of these factors and how they interrelate, refer to the USDA publication Rural America at a Glance, 2016 Edition on the web at –
What are the resilient actions to advance improved urban-rural prosperity partnerships?
- The first effort should be at developing information and understanding. The political processes and the media must understand their responsibility to unify the country and expand common ground. This should be a criterion to evaluate their worth and effectiveness. The more fact based information about rural and urban circumstances will be beneficial. We must focus on what brings us together rather than what pulls us apart and there must be a continuing dialogue on this.
- Also, the cost and impact of Federal programs in rural areas should be assessed and the lessons applied. For example, how many dollars have been required by rural communities to implement the Endangered Species Act? This should be assessed as both direct costs and also lost opportunity costs to American rural populations. A careful assessment of this will be beneficial to understand how urban based Federal and state policies affect others. Potentially from this information targeted reforms can be undertaken that will tailor these laws and policies to more efficiently and effectively operate.
- Rural based economic programs must be developed and implemented. Genius is being able to take a set of difficult assumptions and to formulate them into a successful answer. Though significant thought has been spent on this, more must be invested. It is said that the countryside does not support innovation. We should develop methods to capitalize on countryside assets to improve economic opportunities in a spirit of rural-urban prosperity partnership. This would not be to make rural into urban, but instead to invest it with a set of opportunities that could support investment and enterprise.
- Public Lands Must be Widely Used for the Benefit of All the American People as a Prodigious Asset. A simple action would be to devolve these lands to the States. A concern should be this would be giving away America’s most significant asset. Part of the genius to move us towards rural-urban prosperity partnership is to define the wise use of the property. They serve many purposes including public recreation, agriculture and mining. Areas have a robust public land area may capitalize through outdoors recreational opportunities. Though it has been significantly curtailed, public lands offer great opportunity for logging and in some instance mining. There must be a public dialogue on the use of this prodigious asset. It should not be sold off to private interests and removed as a public asset and on the other hand, it should not be frozen into limitless monuments with severe use restrictions. Getting this right is key to urban-rural prosperity partnership.
- We need specific participation programs to pull us together. Your other article “Vietnam: The War that Killed Trust” ran on January 7, 2017 addresses this specifically.
The heading refers to Vietnam as the war that killed trust. The article does address this, but also explains how Vietnam advanced racial integration through the necessity of surviving together in a deadly battlefield. Karl Marlantes refers to the expectation of service before Vietnam and how this has eroded in America since.
We need to return to the spirit of the military draft, and how people felt about service to their country. The military draft was viewed by most of us the same way we view income tax. I wouldn’t pay my taxes if there wasn’t the threat of jail. But as a responsible citizen, I also see that paying taxes is necessary to fund the government – my government. Karl Marlantes, “Vietnam: The War That Killed Trust” (Jan 7, 2017)
The answers that demonstrate durable truth are simple. Change the political narrative looking for common ground and dialogue based upon common goals and well researched facts; Improve access to facts about urban and rural populations (we need to understand each other). Investigate and question “facts” from many perspectives. Implement specific programs for rural-urban prosperity partnerships as the Roosevelt Administration did beginning in 1933 with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and with the Rural Electric Administration (REA) in 1935. Finally, restore to America the expectation of service to other Americans and our country. If we can find a way to engage and compel the power and finances of powerful opinion leaders we will be on the way to a useful reform. With a little genius we may transform the American human landscape. Without this rationale we will continue the interminable spitting-contest that will lead us nowhere that is beneficial for America and Americans – only to the politicians and economic entities that profit from our loss.