It’s happened again. Writers in The New York Times are once again wondering aloud if country people shouldn’t just give up and move to the city to deal with problems of economic insecurity. Which means, it’s time for another episode of “Why Don’t Country People Just Get Out?”
In an article titled “The Hard Truth of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy,” Eduardo Porter floats this question: “Instead of so-called place-based policies to revitalize small towns, why not help their residents take advantage of opportunities where the opportunities are?” In other words, let’s make available more affordable housing in the cities so that rural people can move in and escape the grey and gloom of the withering countryside.
To be fair, Porter sees this as only one alternative, and perhaps not the best one. An admitted urbano-phile, Porter recognizes that “even if moving people might prove more efficient on paper than restoring places, many people — especially older people and the family members who care for them — may choose to remain in rural areas.” Imagine that.
The useful thing that Porter’s piece does is to highlight a major feature of the 21st century economy —agglomeration. It’s as ugly as it sounds. It looks like the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, contributing to the growing Great Divide in our country.
The recent decision by Amazon to locate its next major headquarters hub in suburban DC and New York City illustrates the problem. The two-year search process for the internet retail behemoth’s HQ2 inspired small cities across the country, from Anchorage to Birmingham, to fall over themselves with expensive bids to remake themselves in Amazon’s image. In the end, Amazon made a choice that seemed logical from the beginning: It chose two highly-connected cities with large, educated labor pools and cultural amenities. So two big, rich cities will get bigger and richer. Agglomeration 101.
But maybe there are ways to connect rural areas to the 21st century economy. Porter seems to think, if we’re going to make the effort, that’s the main way to bring development. Increasing broadband access would help. Training in I.T. to build a tech workforce. Investment capital for small businesses.
In a more recent op-ed, Silicon Valley Congressman Ro Khanna argues all rural areas need is “the opportunity to do the creative work that fuels our digital economy.” A little bit more fiber optic investment, convert community colleges into tech institutes, add some federal incentives and suddenly West Virginia backwaters are on the information superhighway.
Not that I wouldn’t mind some better Internet, but the underlying belief is that the technology sector is the engine that will drive every local economy and the bloom is going off that rose. For every aspiring, highly-educated app developer, there’s a truck driver worrying if self-driving vehicles are going to put him or her out of a job. Plus tech is one more story begun in another place that claims to be able to write the narrative for rural America’s recovery.
Every local economy has to adapt itself to find its niche in a larger economy, but what if the heartlands still have the capacity to start a few stories of their own?
Recently I was back visiting in Orange, Virginia, the small town where I grew up. I took a long run through the town passing all my old haunts. Orange is a hilly, Piedmont town that has been building on tourism and lower housing costs for exurban commuters to replace the textile and industrial base that once grounded its economy. For the most part it has been changing within its own skin, retaining the brick storefronts and retail shells for new purposes.
Tech is not remaking my old hometown, at least directly. It’s possible some of the new Amazonians coming to northern Virginia will decide to commute or tele-commute from Orange. But the town has a lot of people who want Orange to build on its own history, too, from the renovated train station to the local arts center. Because they are forced by circumstances to innovate, small towns could be the mothers of invention when it comes to finding alternatives to the ubiquitous tech economy.
Agglomeration feeds the myopic way in which we see one industry and one successful model as the answer for every situation. To use an agricultural metaphor, it introduces the vulnerability of a monoculture that, with one bad blight, exposes a tragic loss of resiliency.
Instead of sending the countryside to the city to keep building the monoculture, why don’t we spur rural areas to the kind of creativity and diverse flourishing that created Silicon Valley in the first place? There are untapped resources, (human, natural, and cultural), that can yield untold, unexpected fruit. The resources don’t have to be imported. The country is already there.