Time to get real about state of rural America

Time to get real about state of rural America

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 manifestos 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 care is 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 centres have always been magnets for economic growth. They offer large markets, ready availability of specialised suppliers, large pools of workers with specialised skills, and the invisible exchange of information that comes from face-to-face contact. As 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, US agriculture directly employed 6 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 specialised 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 the US 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 US 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.

So what can be done to help? We can make sure 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 US$1.7 trillion in an attempt to revive the former East Germany, yet the region is still lagging.

Nor can we expect aid to produce a political turnaround. In 2017, a quarter of East German men voted for the extreme-right Alternative for Germany.

We can't help rural America without understanding that the role it used to play is being undermined by powerful economic forces that nobody knows how to stop. ©2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES

Paul Krugman, a Nobel laureate in economics, is a columnist with The New York Times.

Paul Krugman

Columnist with the New York Times

A Nobel laureate in economics, is a columnist with the New York Times.


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