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!