The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

August 26, 2013

Amid a rural decline, people aim to save their communities


These circumstances have become a call to action. But it's an uphill fight.

First, never has such a small portion of the American public lived in rural areas. Maps based on the most recent census show that, especially in the middle of the country, many small towns are emptying, while urban areas are growing. Only one in six Americans lives in a rural community. The ratio in Minnesota is slightly higher, around one in four. But even that represents a dramatic decline. In 1950, 56 percent of Minnesotans were considered rural.

For decades, outstate Minnesota has been bleeding young people who move to urban areas for better jobs and cultural opportunities and leave behind a population that's older, poorer, less college educated and more politically conservative than the state as a whole.

In December, just after an election where rural people largely voted against President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack declared that rural America "is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country." He added that it's time for an "adult conversation with folks in rural America." The comments rankled many, but others saw truth in what the former Iowa governor said.

Rural is no longer synonymous with agriculture. Farming is increasingly dominated by multinational corporations, and this has left a void on Main Street. "Sometimes you get the feeling there is no there there, no common interest that pulls people together," said Arne Kildegaard, director of the Center for Small Towns at the University of Minnesota Morris.

"Agriculture feels like it's spun off in its own orbit now. They do their banking and agriculture financing things in town," he said. "But their economic interest is no longer closely tied to the town except that they want to keep tax rates low. That is their degree of civic engagement."

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