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The empty heartland: job and population losses are hitting the dozen states of the rural Great Plains hard. But some towns are finding ways to fight back.

When deal comes to a small town, the school is usually the last thing to go. A place can lose its bank, its tavern, its grocery store, its shoe shop. But when the school closes, you might as well put a fork in it.

So it was in Hardy, one of many last-gasp towns in Nuckolls County, Neb., along the Kansas state line. A stone marker, overgrown with weeds under sagging football goal-posts, marks where the Hardy school used to be.

Last year, Nuckolls County, population 4,843, lost another two schools to budget cuts and declining enrollment, perhaps dooming another pair of towns to Hardy's fate in a region that has seen nearly two thirds of its population disappear since 1920.

Those towns are not alone. From the Dakotas to the Texas Panhandle, the rural Great Plains has been losing people for 70 years, a slow demographic collapse. Once a vibrant swath of America with farmers and merchants doing business in bustling small towns, many rural countries are losing their very reason to exist, falling behind the test of the nation in nearly every category.


Over the last half-century, when the United States added 130 million people and the population grew by 86 percent, rural countries in the 12 Great Plains states lost 21 percent of their people.

The vast region also appears to have lost some of the optimism that once seemed a part or rural American DNA. While many in the rural heartland embrace family and a way of life that puts less emphasis on material success, a University of Nebraska poll of 3,087 rural Nebraska residents found that only 11 percent said they were happy where they live--a major shift from earlier polls.

"Will this be the last generation to inhabit the rural Great Plains?" asks Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit research group in Walthill, Neb. Few people in Nebraska, which has seven of the nation's 12 poorest counties, scoff at the question. (continued)

In counties near cities or interstate highways, population and jobs continue to grow, and overall, the population of the Great Plains states has increased. A few towns prosper because their leaders have found ways to attract new business, often through tourism (see "Sowing Art," p. 21).

But in the rural plains--about one sixth of the landmass of the United States--the wage gaps with cities are at record highs: People in rural counties of the Great Plains earn 48 percent of what their metro-area counterparts make, compared with 58 percent in 1990, according to one study. And in nearly 70 percent of the counties on the plains, there are fewer people now than there were in 1950.


The rural plains are now home to problems that America's industrial cities suffered in the 1960s. Among teenagers, drug use is higher in rural areas than in cities or suburbs, recent surveys indicate. The middle class is dwindling, leaving pockets of hard poverty.

In Superior, the Nuckolls County anchor, people taxed themselves to create an economic development fund. They put in a fiber-optic network for telecommunications. They zoned 30 acres for an industrial park. "Industry could come in here and produce their products pretty cheap," says Joe Jensen, the city's public-utility manager.

But the brand-new building at the center of the industrial park sits empty. Just outside of town a lone crop duster, flipped in a storm, rests upside down on the paved and well-lighted runway. And the townspeople wait--for jobs, for business, for a future. They wait for the supposed benefits of Internet commerce and a shrunken globe. In hundreds of other counties, industrial parks and new buildings also sit empty.

On a recent day in Superior, young people hung out in the parking lot of Subway, the town's only chain eatery. Quentin Colwell, a high-school senior, has a job on a pig farm that pays $8 an hour. "I'm stuck here," he says. None of his friends plans to stay in Superior.

Not long ago, Superior, like much of the plains, was humming. There was a cheese factory churning out mozzarella from the milk of Nebraska cows for Pizza Hut toppings; a big cement plant at the edge of town; and dozens of small stores.


But the factories are now empty: too remote and not profitable enough, the owners say. The stores are dead. Over the last generation, Superior has lost two car dealers, four clothing stores, a shoe store, a drugstore, a locally managed savings and loan, a JC Penney store. The town's population has fallen to the 2,000 level that is often considered the threshold for a functioning regional center.

Two forces common to rural America have transformed Superior. One is the collapse of the family farm and the subsequent rise of agribusiness. Arguments about the miracle of the American breadbasket--harnessing market efficiency and technology to produce cheap food in stunning abundance--may resound globally, but they ring hollow locally. As big farms get richer, fattened by federal subsidies, small farms are disappearing. The United States grows more food now than if did 50 years ago, on about 25 percent less acreage. A century ago, more than 30 percent of Americans worked on farms. Now it's 1 percent.

The other force is the Wal-Mart effect. When a Wal-Mart comes into a midsize town, says Bill Blauvelt, the publisher of Superior's weekly newspaper, the town newspaper's advertising revenue drops about 40 percent, reflecting the devastating impact on local stores. A University of Nebraska study round that in 52 rural counties in the state, the local share of the retail pie fell by 50 percent in the last 20 years. (Wal-Mart says that its stores employ numerous workers, and that shoppers save hundreds of dollars in the stores.)

Does the emptying of the heartland matter? John C. Allen, director of the Center for Applied Rural Innovation at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, says the nation's character suffered when it became a country of urbanites. "You take the center out, and you really lose something," he says.


Economists say that history--mined for tourists--and small companies making unique products are the future for rural America. The little town of Red Cloud, just to the west of Superior, has prospered from its claim as the h0me of Willa Cather, an early 20th Century novelist. Hardy, the dying town just to the east of Superior, has nothing similar to fall back on. In Superior a winery will soon open, producing wine from locally grown grapes.

"We've taken ownership of our community seriously," says Sherry Kniep, the economic development director of Superior, "and we're not going to see it die."
The Rural Plains vs. the Rest of the U.S.
How the 358 rural counties of the 12-state Great Plains region
compare with the rest of the United States.

 Rural Plains Rest of U.S.

Population growth -21% +86%
Population 1.9 million 280 million
Median household income $33,183 $43,415
Work in agriculture 14% 1%
College degree or higher 16% 25%
20 to 35 years old 14% 21%
65 or older 18% 12%



* John Allen of the University of Nebraska says the nation's character suffered when it became a country of urbanites. What value, if any, is there in keeping alive rural areas and economies?


To help students understand the economic forces that have affected rural areas of the Great Plains, putting family farms and merchants out of business and driving away young people, who see no future there.


BEFORE READING: Write "How Economics Affects People" on the board. Tell students that they are about to learn how economic forces can change people's lives, in this case, in a largely negative way.

CRITICAL THINKING: Direct attention to the two forces identified as contributors to the decline of the rural Great Plains: the rise of agribusiness and the "Wal-Mart effect."

Explain that agribusiness is a broad term that encompasses companies that own large farms and are also involved in the processing and distribution of food. Because of their size (economies of scale), such companies can produce large quantities of food more efficiently and cheaply than family farms can.

The same economies of scale also benefit Wal-Mart, which can buy (and sell) its products for less because it is so big. The question for students to consider is whether these economies of scale, which can drive out smaller competitors, are simply a foundation of economics, or an economic and social issue that society should address.

DEBATE: Split the class into two groups. Ask each group to formulate an argument supporting or opposing this statement: The federal government should give special tax breaks or other subsidies to Plains towns to stimulate family farms and other local industries.

Ask students to suggest the benefits and drawbacks of economies of scale as evidenced in agribusiness and Wal-Mart. (Are cheaper food and retail products worth the harm they may cause in rural areas of the Great Plains? Would Americans pay more to sustain these areas?)

WEB WATCH: is a Library of Congress Web site that provides collections of photographs of life in the northern Great Plains between 1880 and 1920.

Upfront QUIZ 4

DIRECTIONS: Circle the letter next to the best answer.

1. The death knell for small rural towns often comes when the community loses its

a school.

b house of worship.

c bank.

d food store.

2. Surveys comparing teens in rural areas with those in urban and Suburban areas find that

a urban teens are better students.

b rural teens are more religious.

c rural teens work more than urban or suburban teens.

d illegal drug use is higher among rural teens.

3. One bright spot for a few rural areas in the Great Plains is an economic boost from

a farming.

b new factories.

c tourism.

d land sales.

4. A University of Nebraska poll of rural residents' attitudes round that only a small minority

a are trying to improve their communities' job potential by setting up business development areas.

b are looking for work elsewhere.

c are happy where they live.

d believe that the middle class is dwindling.

5. One of the more intriguing facts about American agriculture today is that

a food is safer today than it was in the last century.

b more young people are working on farms.

c most of the most productive farms are in the West.

d more food is grown on less land than 50 years ago.

6. The best definition of the "Wal-Mart effect" is

a cheaper prices for more consumers.

b intense competition for local retailers.

c more imports of foreign-made products.

d new jobs for residents of rural areas.


1. (a) school.

2. (d) illegal drug use is higher among rural teens.

3. (c) tourism.

4. (c) are happy where they live.

5. (d) more food is grown on less land than 50 years ago.

6. (b) intense competition for local retailers.

RELATED ARTICLE: Sowing art on the Kansas prairie: a longtime TV newscaster returns to add color and commerce to the fading town of Sedan.

Not long ago the isolated town of Sedan, Kan., nestled in the Flint Hills, seemed about to be blown off the map. The bank failed, farmers lost or sold their land stores shut down, and people drifted away.

Now, driven in part by the dream of Bill Kurtis, a Kansan and longtime correspondent and news anchor for CBS, Sedan is reinventing itself as a prairie art colony.

Artists, some from more established art scenes elsewhere, have begun arriving--perhaps lured by the $1 rents Kurtis charges for several downtown storefronts he has renovated. Tourists are also finding their way to Sedan. Local merchants estimate that about 80,000 visited in 2003, and they expect many more this year.

Many troubled Midwestern towns are grasping for ways to fend off decline or extinction. People in Sedan, which has 1,200 residents in an impoverished part of Kansas, believe they have found what hundreds of communities are seeking: a formula that will lead them back toward prosperity.

"It's just mind-boggling to see what can happen, says Judy Tolbert, a Sedan bed-and-breakfast owner. "When I got back to Sedan four and a half years ago, there were 14 empty buildings on Main Street. Now there are two."

The big break came in 1999 when Kurtis, 63, who grew up nearby, invested $1 million in Sedan. He hopes eventually to turn a profit, but that is not his main goal.

"For me, it was gettin back in touch with the land, specialty after 9/11," he says. "When towers fall, you reach out for some permanent anchor." --Stephen Kinzer

Timothy Egan is a correspondent for The New Times. With reporting by Peter T. Kilborn.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Egan, Timothy
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Mar 8, 2004
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