A Modest Proposal for Rural America


I have lived in small towns and now a small city for the past 25 years or so.  Small towns and rural areas certainly have struggled for quite some time now and it is easy to see why residents of such places might yearn for a golden age in the past.

Because of this yearning for a golden past, combined with a current notion that rural life is somehow simpler and more pure, rural voters tend to skew conservative in politics.

Unfortunately for most small towners, voting Republican really hasn’t changed much for them as the party’s twin obsessions with cutting taxes and screaming about abortion does nothing for rural areas.

The trouble in rural areas is really one of demographics, people have been urbanizing since the late 1800s and the trend has continued into the 21st century.  To put it simply, more people prefer the cultural and economic opportunities that cities have to offer, so they vote with their feet.

Many times leaders of rural areas make their own problem worse by doubling down on what they think is their “strengths.”    They try to market their town as being “family friendly” by touting their lack of crime (and frankly, diversity.)  But the aging housing stock and boring cultural life (high school football and basketball are not “culture”) does not bring in young families or even tourists.  Young people leave for better jobs, local employers lose the best employees and the cycle continues in the wrong direction.

I have a modest proposal to fix this, even though rural people themselves might not like it at first.

Mark Twain famously said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” and to me the country is looking a bit like the turn of the 19th into the 20th century.  Massive changes in the economy mixed with changes in immigration and culture.  One thing that was used in those early times was homesteading and maybe it is time to try it again.

In those times, here in Wisconsin, we needed to figure out what to do with vacant land that had been essentially strip mined for lumber.  Lousy soil filled with stumps.  The solution was to give or sell cheaply that land (OK, sometimes dishonestly) to people who were looking for a new start on life.  People were came from all over Europe (and from within the US, of course) to make lemonade out of the less than perfect circumstances.  These same people (or their descendants) would go on to become the backbone of the industrial heartland and ironically now are often calling for immigration restrictions.

Perhaps homesteading could again bring people back to the heartland.  Here is the proposal.

We could offer people the opportunity to move to a rural area and give them an economic incentive to do so.  That incentive would come in the form of very low cost land or housing.  This could come in the form of tax abatements and some kind of “sweat equity” provision.  Something along the lines of “come live here 10 years, and the first five years are free.”

There would be some sort of criteria (improvements made, businesses started, etc.) and if met the homesteaders own their land, otherwise it reverts back to the town, county, whatever.

Now, the original homesteading worked by taking land from Native Americans, so I am not going to feel bad if some land or houses today have to  feel bad if some areas use eminent domain to do this.

To sweeten the deal for the rural areas (and to help pay for things) the homesteaders are going to have to put up with a few inconveniences.  As part of the program, I could well imagine using the homesteaded areas for the public good.  For example, they might be used to generate renewable energy by having wind turbines or solar energy panels.  Part of the power proceeds could go to the homesteaders and the rest to the town or county where they are.  The locals would benefit from employment putting up the renewables and could use the power for a local industrial park.  In the same way, internet infrastructure could be part of the deal.  County-wide wifi, anyone?

Another benefit that could be cooked in is environmental easements on the homestead properties.  Homesteaders could restore wetlands, provide wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities.

The homesteading opportunities would be made available to immigrants, city dwellers and pretty much everyone who would find this intriguing.  I think this would be a win-win for rural areas.  Let’s look at a few of the wins that would be possible.

Rural areas would get a real increase in population — for the first time in decades.  This would increase school attendance and in many places increased state aid.  Hopefully the homesteaders would increase the ethnic diversity, which in turn would increase the area’s “coolness factor.”  Ethnic restaurants, local ethnically based music, farmers markets, free wifi — sounds like a huge increase in tourism to me.  And maybe even many new residents who see “family friendly” and “cultural opportunities.”  New businesses would spring up both those created by the homesteaders and increases in the existing local business community.

Here in Wausau, WI where I live, we had an influx of Hmong refugees in the 1980s.  They are currently about 12% of our population here.  In a town of 40,000, imagine what a further loss of 12% of the population would do to our economy, schools and more.  And those refugees brought none of the advantages that could be baked into a homesteader program.

In the 1970s, Wausau was almost completely white.  We are now much more ethnically diverse, first with the Hmong people, and now a growing Hispanic community.  I personally feel that racial prejudice has decreased and we have, in fact, benefited from the cultural opportunities I mentioned above, with ethnic restaurants taking root and other cultural activities as well relating to Hmong culture.

This is not a completely thought out proposal, of course, but I think it is worth considering and your input can help!

 

Comments

  1. says

    Now, the original homesteading worked by taking land from Native Americans, so I am not going to feel bad if some land or houses today have to feel bad if some areas use eminent domain to do this.

    Or just give it back to the people it was stolen from in the first place?

    If people are unwilling to do this, then maybe they can offer it to Israeli settlers so they don’t have to keep stealing the homes of Palestinians.

  2. kestrel says

    I’ll bite. I live in a rural area and I’m a farmer.

    The things you are talking about are not true here. Where I live, nearly everyone is NOT conservative. These farmers all know which side has the butter and they pretty much all vote democratic. Where I live, it is the “big” cities (our biggest cities are just not all that big) where everyone votes republican and is quite conservative.

    Increasing the population is great, but people still need a way to make a living. This is really tough way out in the sticks, because farming just does not pay – it costs too much in seed to plant a field, and the equipment to cut and harvest it costs so much it’s hard to get it without a loan. (We got lucky and managed to buy a tractor for “only” $10,000.00 – but that still leaves a mower, rake, (or combine), baler etc.) And then of course you have to wonder if it will rain, or not. The other problem we face out here in the sticks is no infrastructure. Sure, more people paying taxes would help, but those people have to have some way to make a living. How do they do that? The idea of farmer’s markets is pretty cool, but is very seasonal. If you’re making payments on a tractor and implements, you have to make those payments every month of the year. No infrastructure here means, among other things, no ambulance. No hospital. If you get hurt, you just might have to lay down and die of something completely treatable, if someone is not around to drive you to a hospital in another county. The fire department is all volunteer. They may, or may not, be able to get to your house fire in a timely fashion, since most of them work full-time somewhere else in addition to being volunteers. Apparently, the county has no money to pay for an ambulance or full time fire fighters.

    Maybe you’re proposing people get paid to restore wetlands, or native prairie grasses? Who would pay for that? Again, the county simply has no money. And once the work was done, how would those people then earn a living?

    Many people put their fields up for sale but they have such a high price tag no one will buy them. Some have been for sale for over 20 years. I’ve talked with some of these people to see if they would lower their price, but so far, the answer has always been “no”, and most of them won’t even take payments. This makes me unsure where you’d get all this land to homestead with. I suppose someone could just seize it, but… boy, that sound really problematic to me.

    I think the whole point of the original homestead act was to steal land and then say, “See? It’s occupied, you have to go somewhere else!” to the indigenous people. It should never have happened, in my view, and I doubt it would go over well now. In any event, subsistence farming seems to be a thing of the past, as the costs associated have risen so high. It could be really hard to find people who would want to do it, as most people lack basic livestock handling or equipment handling skills… unless, of course, you have some really great idea how all these people could make a living out on the land? Always willing to listen and learn!

    • says

      First of all, I would disagree that as a country we are “out of money.” I would say that it is not distributed very well. And yes, we could have people restoring prairies and wetlands. Would not be that expensive. We could be increasing our renewable energy sources. That power could be sent to local industrial parks — free or very cheap: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/09/business/energy-environment/a-texas-utility-offers-a-nighttime-special-free-electricity.html?_r=0. There is much that could be done!

      • kestrel says

        Oh, I should be clear: I don’t think our COUNTRY is out of money. It the COUNTY that I live in, that has no money. To date, the country has not been the slightest bit interested in paying the county so they can hire full-time firegfighters, EMTs and paramedics for the ambulance, not even so much as a base for the ambulance to stay in, so the the fluids don’t freeze in the winter. Due to the history I am not expecting the country to suddenly start paying for these things! :-)

        Our county, by the way, is huge. It’s about 2,000 square miles, and there are less than 5,000 people living here. We don’t have any 1%ers living here; redistributing the wealth would not result in much of a change. In addition, a lot of the land is unsuitable for farming due to being located on the side of a mountain. What can be farmed, is mostly being farmed currently. The deal is that at present, you can not make money farming here; you can lose money hand over fist and that is what is mostly happening.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    In America, there seems to be a baked-in assumption that small-town or rural life is inherently “better” than city life — more moral, safer, desirable than living in the city. Back in the 20s, there were all kinds of movies about the (male) rural protagonist getting choosing between the evil temptress of the city and the virtuous, wholesome rural blonde. That kept going into the 70s — “You can’t put me in your penthouse, I’m going back to my plough.” We must strive to save the family farm because, well, they’re families! Who live on farms!

    I’m not seeing it.

    I think any modern moral system needs to start off with sustainability on the planet. And from that standpoint, the smaller a footprint of land you take up, the better. A high-rise full of people is far more sustainable than those same people spread out over a suburb, who in turn are more sustainable than people spread out all over the countryside.

    Let’s envision a future where most people live in cities, agriculture is mostly done by robots with an eye towards efficiency (not necessarily monocultures, just planned better), and large parts of what is now “rural America” are allowed to return to wilderness. Why wouldn’t that be better than what you propose?

    • says

      I agree very much with the view that “cities are the saviour of wilderness,” but the question is, how big do the cities have to be and what is the ideal size. Is it better to have several huge cities or many small ones? I don’t know the answer to that question by any means!

  4. says

    Kestrel:

    Increasing the population is great, but people still need a way to make a living. This is really tough way out in the sticks, because farming just does not pay – it costs too much in seed to plant a field, and the equipment to cut and harvest it costs so much it’s hard to get it without a loan. (We got lucky and managed to buy a tractor for “only” $10,000.00 – but that still leaves a mower, rake, (or combine), baler etc.) And then of course you have to wonder if it will rain, or not. The other problem we face out here in the sticks is no infrastructure. Sure, more people paying taxes would help, but those people have to have some way to make a living. How do they do that? The idea of farmer’s markets is pretty cool, but is very seasonal. If you’re making payments on a tractor and implements, you have to make those payments every month of the year. No infrastructure here means, among other things, no ambulance. No hospital. If you get hurt, you just might have to lay down and die of something completely treatable, if someone is not around to drive you to a hospital in another county. The fire department is all volunteer. They may, or may not, be able to get to your house fire in a timely fashion, since most of them work full-time somewhere else in addition to being volunteers. Apparently, the county has no money to pay for an ambulance or full time fire fighters.

    I’m with Kestrel. I live rural, in a town of 79, in Ndakota. There is zero when it comes to infrastructure here. Ndakota is a big, big place, where everything is very far from everything else. Bismarck managed to finally implement public transport, in the form of buses, around 10, 15 years ago. You live out where I do? Nothing. There are train tracks everywhere in this state, and if someone wanted to, passenger trains could be brought back, and that would relieve a whole lot of problems, but that ain’t gonna happen. Also, in my town, as Kestrel, said, there is no way to make a living. My husband works in Dickinson, over 80 miles away from where we live. That’s why I only see him 3 days a week.

    I think the whole point of the original homestead act was to steal land and then say, “See? It’s occupied, you have to go somewhere else!” to the indigenous people. It should never have happened, in my view, and I doubt it would go over well now.

    Ferociously agreed. I’m half Oglala Lakota, and the Dakotas are the heart of Indian Country. We are currently in a fight for our lives here, up against big oil, and do you think most Dakotans stand with us? Hell no, because they drink the kool-aid of “hey, jobs!”, when that’s absolute bullshit. People have poured into this state to work oil, they are not from here, and have no plans to stay here, either. Life on reservations is still absolutely shit for a whole lot of people, and the government still owes one hell of a lot to people they continue to treat as foreigners.

    • says

      Several states seem to offer some sort of homesteading, but the ones I saw were directly tied to farming and offered benefits somewhere in the $20K range which is probably not enough to entice people out of the city.

  5. says

    They did homesteading in Baltimore and it immediately turned into a handout for speculators: a lot of wealthy people made their official residence the city house they were supposedly restoring, then restored it into apartments and – after the 5 year homestead was up, flipped it into the rental market. The only way to do homesteading would be with a means test coupled to it, somehow. In agriculture you’ll wind up otherwise with the local capitalist owning a combine and renting it out to other farmers, eventually turning them into sharecroppers or worse.

    My irish and norwegian ancestors were settled in a piece of wisconsin that had been taken from the indigenous peoples :/ and, as Caine says in #3: they were used as placeholders in a game. Of course, it didn’t hurt them that badly; they were certainly better off than dying of starvation in the potato famine they had fled from.

    Global warming is going to perturb the cost/benefit analysis of cities in interesting and unexpected ways. Not to sound all libertarian but this may be a problem that will self-correct fairly quickly, in market terms.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    Marcus, of course the speculation you describe was a feature of the original homesteading as well. The first people to arrive and homestead turned around and became the real estate agents selling to later arrivals.

    I was reading recently about the history of the game Monopoly, from the original Landlord game designed by Elizabeth Magie. She was a follower of Georgism, the economic proposal that resources like land and water should be owned by the government and rented to individuals. That sounds appealingly like cap and trade to me, which makes me wonder if it might be a good system to try for agriculture on a large scale, as it avoids some of the monopolistic tendencies of capitalism — if a big ag giant like Monsanto starts to fall behind with innovation, theoretically a little guy can come in and undercut them on the rent. Of course, the system would have drawbacks as well — less incentive to improve the land if you know that it could get taken from under you next year.

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