Rural America’s future is not in its past

Nathan Polk | @snpolk2, Staff Columnist

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Small-town America can no longer rely on traditional patterns of growth. Revitalization must begin with a fresh vision for the future. 

I grew up in an unincorporated area of West Virginia with less than 15,000 residents. The town where my high school sits boasts less than 2,500 residents. Our local economy was far better than many other regions in the state, where blue-collar jobs evaporated at an alarming rate for decades. Though it was stable, it still lacked diversification. The truth was always on our minds. If coal died, so would we. 

Small Town USA, comprised of thousands of humble towns just like mine spread throughout the country, is in trouble. These locations are full of good people, vibrant cultures and dear memories. However, they lack the keystone industrial centers that were their lifeblood in very recent years. Globalization took manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor. Factors of urbanization increased the number of Americans living in cities by 22% over the past 60 years1. Plagues like opioid addiction, which kills 50% more in rural areas than urban areas2, constantly scourge families as despair and destruction increase complementarily. To quote Mr. Bob Dylan, “The times, they are a-changin.” The changes are rarely good.

No one has answers. Journalists, academics and public officials often churn out research. Their speculation as to causes and trends surely diagnose the problems, but they provide no prescription for these dying communities. The answer always mirrors a familiar blueprint: attract a core industry, create a few hundred jobs and return to the glory days. 

The problem is that the jobs are gone. A great deal of physical labor is automated, and businesses are outsourcing the remaining jobs past generations dreamt about to India, China and Bangladesh. The blueprints are dead. To cling to cadaverous memories is futile in our modern business environment. 

I have sat in meetings with leaders from my home state and Tuscaloosa for the last five years, listening to uninspired plans for revitalization. Death of industry in low population areas draws younger generations away for employment in urban areas. This reality leaves older leaders more comfortable with maintaining the status quo in their place. The jaded weariness of experience replaces the wide-eyed passion of youth. Thus, the cycle repeats.

This October marks 72 years since an American hero, also from West Virginia, did the unimaginable. In 1947, Captain Chuck Yeager, a World War II combat fighter pilot, hopped into the experimental X-1 jet plane and became the first human being to break the sound barrier. Scientists predicted any such speed would obliterate an aircraft. The ingenuity of Bell Aircraft and the courage of an adventurous American proved them wrong. 

The world took a step forward technologically as a result of Yeager’s work. More importantly, America caught another glimpse of its most successful tendencies. The secret to growth in urban areas is a preoccupation with the future. Proactive change and innovation reinvent identity and reorient people for growth. Nostalgia only serves two purposes. First, it drives us to fall for clever advertisements and spend money. Second, it makes us sad. There is little growth found in the rubble of the past. Sweet stories don’t pay the light bill.

America became great because of men like Chuck Yeager, who didn’t worry about past accomplishments but were obsessed with tackling new, challenging and inspiring opportunities. They reached for the stars and sped past the clouds, to the moon and beyond. Salvation for dying rural communities is not in the past. It is time to look forward.

College student, you have a role to play. There is an excellent opportunity for you to change the face of America. We desperately need high-flying, barrier-breaking heroes to step into rural communities and effect change. A single generation could leave a legacy of radical transformation if its members willingly plant roots in dying localities and commit to investing their lives in the future. The old way of solving problems is not working. The destiny of small-town America is in our hands.