Where Have all the Cowboys Gone? - Housing Week


Photo by the Library of Congress.

Something is happening to Middle America. America’s heartland was once filled with small rural towns- places of agriculture and strong community. The types of places that were characterized by flat lands, big sky, and an inherently slower and simpler way of life. Today, once-pronounced clusters of rural populations in the Great Plains and the Corn Belt are fading rapidly into extinction. These lands that once held bustling farms and vibrant manufacturing businesses now lie dormant, near vacant, and in some cases, on the verge of disappearing all together. The U.S. Census Report from 2010 reported that only 16% of America’s population is currently living in rural areas.

This is not a new phenomenon — people have been leaving rural America since the Great Depression. What is new is the extent of damage these towns are undergoing. Many of these rural places are at such a point that, unless concentrated and collaborative effort is put into their reconstruction, they will cease to exist at all within just decades.

Like most of the nation, recent unfortunate developments like a troubled economy, record home foreclosures, and tightened credit availability have depressed markets in these towns and sent housing prices plummeting. These are only the outside contributing factors. Upon closer examinations of these towns, the larger economic pressures surrounding them are much exacerbated by local structures, or lack thereof.

Limited access to quality credit and affordable mortgage financing is a significant factor affecting the performance of rural mortgages. Although rural residents are more likely than their urban counterparts to own their homes they also have a higher incidence of sub-standard living conditions. To boot, rural areas generally have fewer financial institutions than urban markets, resulting in less competition and increased cost to customers.

Housing market problems aside, the biggest problem for these small towns is the mass-exodus of their greatest social capital: young people. More specifically, educated young people. Coupled with a severe lack of investment in local community infrastructure, the ‘brain drain’ has left many small rural towns hanging on by a thread. Those who leave don’t come back (usually), and those who stay are drawn into trends of downward economic mobility.

BTR spoke with Sociology Professor David L.Brown of Cornell University about the problems facing these small towns.

“The inability to attract and retain well prepared young adults after they graduate from high school negatively affects many rural places prospects for economic growth,” said Brown concerning the problem of rural youth.

“The mismatch between jobs and recent graduates human capital is the major factor that repulses recent grads and fails to attract other well prepared youth to replace those who leave. Other factors include leaving to attend college or enlist in the military. Some young adults leave simply to experience the ‘bright lights’ of cities.”

According to extensive on-site research conducted by husband and wife sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas, the problem small towns face has several mitigating factors. Huge and fast advancements in technology have quickly increased the level of education necessary to obtain high-paying jobs. Many of the young people in these rural towns who are “high-achievers” venture out to cities for more lucrative (and often tech-related) jobs, or they simply leave to obtain a higher education at elite schools, and the economies of their hometowns give them little incentive to return.

Swift changes in technology have also negatively affected what was once a major source of industry and wealth for these towns. Technological advancements in farming and agribusiness have streamlined food production techniques, decreasing the amount of workers needed to keep farms and plants running. The same can be said for the manufacturing industry which once held a strong place in the economies of these small towns.

As Carr has put it, “automation and outsourcing has dried up the demand for labor and diminished wages (for jobs that do exist).” The people remaining in these are not being efficiently trained to keep up with changing technologies. Professor Brown expounds by saying, “…the quality of rural jobs is a huge problem. Underemployment is more prevalent in rural than in urban areas which means that many persons work but are not able to raise themselves from poverty.” An ill-prepared work force in a waning employment market makes for a depressed local economy.

So-called progress of the agricultural sector has resulted in advances of farm machinery, innovation and technology… and in the process eliminated tens of thousands of jobs. A substantial body of evidence has shown that communities characterized by large-scale, especially industrial, farm structures are often associated with adverse community socioeconomic conditions, e.g., lower community standards of living, less economic diversity, fewer community services, and a less vibrant retail trade.

Though, Carr and Kefalas believe that the demise of Middle America is not written in stone. They feel an investment in all the young residents of the town, and not just the high-achieving would greatly benefit these towns’ futures. Coupled with a strengthening of local business and infrastructure- possibly in the form of a re-envisioned means of food production and these communities could be put back on the right track.

Though some evidence suggests this phenomenon is simply a by-product of 21st century business, as the drying up of small towns and the growth of cities is a trend being experienced in many parts of the world.

England, India, and China are just some examples of this. Perhaps with the emergence of these “megalopolises’” we are experiencing a modern day urban renaissance writ large. It would seem that in terms of work and living, the “slow and simple” pace of the country has come up against the city’s “fast and efficient” insistence and the latter is clearly winning out.