Nobody knows how to reverse the heartland’s decline.
Things clump together; the periphery cannot hold.
As you read this, Democratic presidential hopefuls are crisscrossing Iowa, trying to assure farmers that they share their concerns. Commentators are publishing opinion pieces about how Democrats can win back rural voters. Think tanks are issuing manifestoes about reviving heartland economies.
There’s nothing wrong with discussing these issues. Rural lives matter — we’re all Americans, and deserve to share in the nation’s wealth. Rural votes matter even more; like it or not, our political system gives hugely disproportionate weight to less populous states, which are also generally states with relatively rural populations.
But it’s also important to get real. There are powerful forces behind the relative and in some cases absolute economic decline of rural America — and the truth is that nobody knows how to reverse those forces.
Put it this way: Many of the problems facing America have easy technical solutions; all we lack is the political will. Every other advanced country provides universal health care. Affordable child careis within easy reach. Rebuilding our fraying infrastructure would be expensive, but we can afford it — and it might well pay for itself.
But reviving declining regions is really hard. Many countries have tried, but it’s difficult to find any convincing success stories.
Southern Italy remains backward after generations of effort. Despite vast sums spent on reconstruction, the former East Germany is still depressed three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Maybe we could do better, but history is not on our side.
What’s the matter with rural America? Major urban centers have always been magnets for economic growth. They offer large markets, ready availability of specialized suppliers, large pools of workers with specialized skills, and the invisible exchange of information that comes from face-to-face contact. As the Victorian economist Alfred Marshall put it, “The mysteries of the trade become no mysteries; but are as it were in the air.”
But the gravitational pull of big cities used to be counteracted by the need to locate farming where the good land was. In 1950 U.S. agriculture directly employed more than six million people; these farmers supported a network of small towns providing local services, and some of these small towns served as seeds around which various specialized industries grew.
Nor was farming the only activity giving people a reason to live far from major metropolitan areas. There were, for example, almost half a million coal miners.
Even then, rural areas and small towns weren’t the “real America,” somehow morally superior to the rest of us. But they were a major part of the demographic, social and cultural landscape.
Since then, however, while America’s population has doubled, the number of farmers has fallen by two-thirds. There are only around 50,000 coal miners. The incentives for business to locate far from the metropolitan action have greatly diminished. And the people still living in rural areas increasingly feel left behind.
Some of the consequences have been tragic. Not that long ago we used to think of social collapse as an inner-city problem. Nowadays phenomena like the prevalence of jobless men in their prime working years, or worse yet, the surge in “deaths of despair” by drugs, alcohol or suicide are concentrated in declining rural areas.
And politically, rural America is increasingly a world apart. For example, overall U.S. public opinion is increasingly positive toward immigrants. But rural Americans — many of whom rarely encounter immigrants in their daily lives — have a vastly more negative view.
Not surprisingly, rural America is also pretty much the only place where Donald Trump remains popular; despite the damage his trade wars have done to the farm economy, his net approval is vastly higherin rural areas than it is in the rest of the country.
So what can be done to help rural America? We can and should make sure that all Americans have good health care, access to good education, and so on wherever they live. We can try to promote economic development in lagging regions with public investment, employment subsidies and, possibly, job guarantees.
But as I said, experience abroad isn’t encouraging. West Germany invested $1.7 trillion in an attempt to revive the former East Germany — more than $100,000 per capita — yet the region is still lagging, with many young people leaving.
I’m sure that some rural readers will be angered by everything I’ve just said, seeing it as typical big-city condescension. But that’s neither my intention nor the point. I’m simply trying to get real. We can’t help rural America without understanding that the role it used to play in our nation is being undermined by powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop.