Guest Column: Rural communities cannot be left behind

Published 10:00 pm Monday, May 20, 2019

Guest Column by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.

What does it look like to be “Left Behind?”

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Many people recognize this idea from a series of books based on a Biblical prophecy of the end times. This interpretation — of believers being “raptured” to heaven before a period of tribulation preceding the second coming of Jesus — is often attributed to Puritan leader Cotton Mather from the colonial period.

A different kind of being “left behind” is happening here in rural America. In our winner-take-all system, it often seems like our most prosperous days are past.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Rural America is older and poorer than the U.S. average. Rural populations have grown more slowly than urban populations, dropping from 50% of the U.S. population in 1920 to 20% today. Cities lure away many of our up-and-coming young people with good-paying job opportunities.

This decade is the first decade in which rural population dipped slightly, though it has rebounded some in the past couple years.

Hand-in-hand with human capital loss, wealth is extracted from rural areas and concentrates in cities as well. Just 25 urban counties in the U.S. (with 9% of the total population) accounted for almost 30% of income tax collections in 2016. Most of these counties are in California, New York, Texas and Florida. The only two counties in the Midwest on this list are those in which Chicago and Detroit are located.

Besides anxiety of declining fortunes and quite literally dying off, there is fear about change in the racial composition of rural populations. Many people are afraid to open their hearts to immigrants who are preventing a downright collapse of our population, including in Freeborn County, which has decreased by 7,500 residents in the last 50 years as it is. That’s a 20% reduction.

Most religions teach the importance of welcoming the stranger, including the Bible: “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:19)

It’s not just a Biblical imperative; it’s in our economic interests to intertwine our fates with newcomers and move forward together.

That’s not how religion is usually talked about in rural politics, though. There is much more emphasis on certain parts of scripture over others. For example, conservative rural voters are more enthusiastic about policies that control women’s bodies rather than those that bring good news to the poor. Thus, we have a state representative who introduced a heartbeat abortion law with no exceptions for rape or incest, but who also favors complete repeal of estate taxes which would allow for even more opportunity hoarding among wealthy elites in big cities.

People miss the “good old days” of the post-war era when women “knew their place” and a man’s wages were enough to support a family. Alas, voting for politicians who promise to take away women’s rights over their own bodies will not bring back good wages. Ever.

We need economic justice more than anything, starting with higher wages for mid- to low-income workers who spend their paychecks here. Rural economic revitalization programs that bring high speed internet and healthcare access and other amenities would create new opportunities in rural areas.

We will never get that justice from Republican politicians who have repeatedly voted for tax cuts that go mainly to rich people in urban agglomerations. Moreover, the obscene economic inequality that our swing toward conservatism has wrought in the past 40 years has eroded our entire political system. Polarization and gridlock are symptoms of this distortion in our economy. The Citizens United decision, which equated money with free speech, warped it even further.

Democracy is gasping for air (the U.S. is now a “flawed democracy” rather than a “full democracy” according to The Economist), and rural people are the ones who can save it or smother it. Why? Because rural voters have an inordinate impact on the Electoral College and U.S. Senate.

I miss New Deal Democrats like my grandparents who went through the Great Depression and experienced deprivation despite desperately hard work. They were down-to-Earth people who didn’t take anything for granted but God, and didn’t trust unfettered capitalism nor value excess.

The rural policies of the big, bold New Deal helped their families weather the Great Depression with their farms intact. Many of those plans were masterminded by Henry Wallace, farmer and journalist from rural Iowa, who had a wealth of practical ideas for relief, recovery and reform in agriculture.

Now there’s a candidate for president who grew up in Oklahoma, and she has a wealth of clear plans for bringing economic justice to students, seniors and anybody who works hard but is just getting by without the benefit of fair wages or fair markets.

Her name is Elizabeth Warren, and if you’re tired of our rural communities being left behind, I hope you give her a closer look.