As a resident of a small town (Belfast, Tenn.), I am distressed by the 2010 U.S. Census.
Rural population is declining both as a percentage of the U.S. total (down to 16 percent, compared to 20 percent a decade ago and a whopping 72 percent a century ago) and in absolute terms (a loss of 11 million residents since 1990). Demographers warn of a mid-century America characterized by sprawling megalopolises with virtual ghost towns in between.
Do we fully comprehend what is at stake? Granted, so-called “small town values” are not unique to small towns; but, by and large, we have come to expect certain things of small-town folks: faith, civic pride, self-sufficiency, closeness to nature.
Young adults transplanted from rural areas have gone on to benefit the world as inventors, authors, presidents and just good solid citizens. But continuing to amplify the siren call of the Big City is killing the goose that laid the golden egg. As small towns become increasingly populated by retirees beyond childbearing age, there will be fewer and fewer transplants with small town values available to enhance the urban scene.
Just imagine city planners trying to fake small town values (without the innate common sense of rural residents). Nuclear plant workers will leave the doors unlocked at night. People who know all their neighbors will play havoc with the Witness Protection Program. (“Howdy there, John Doe – or should I say Michael Szrmgytoni? How’s your momma ‘n’ them doin’ at their unguarded residence in Brooklyn?”)
And let’s not treat the steady decline of family farms as just an inevitable price of progress. What will our dinner tables look like in 2050 when we’re at the mercy of one giant corporate farm? (“Old MacDonald had a stranglehold on the American economy/E-I-E-I-O…”)
Demographers crow that merging metropolises will allow “more consistent regional planning and cooperation,” but greed for endless expansion will blunt the efficiencies. (“Merging with London seems like a good idea, but the asphalt truck keeps sinking into the Atlantic Ocean!”)
RFD-TV and American Profile magazine do much to extol the virtues of small towns, but states and localities must be relentless in promoting the rural lifestyle. Some states have sharply reduced tuition and fees for out-of-state students.
A Kansas plan designates 50 counties as “rural opportunity zones,” offering to eliminate the state income tax for five years for people who move from another state. Towns can always do more to promote their unique recreational opportunities, crafts and festivals. (“Come for the giant ball of ear wax, but stay for …the proposed new flashing yellow light” just isn’t cutting-edge PR anymore.)
If broadband internet access is expanded, perhaps our far-flung communities can be meccas for young professionals who choose to enjoy the simpler pace of life while telecommuting. And perhaps neighboring hamlets can pool their resources to build an amphitheater so new residents can get their message across without countless trips to the hardware store or courthouse square. (“Here’s how we screwed in a light bulb back in Detroit…”)
Whatever it takes, let’s keep our small towns viable, not just for the sake of tradition and nostalgia, but for the benefits to the world’s future.
“Rage, rage against the dying of the watermelon seed spitting contest…”
(Danny Tyree welcomes reader e-mail responses at email@example.com.)