The U.S. Census confirms what most rural Americans already know.
It reported its 2010 Census showed the nation’s rural population stands at 16 percent of the country, the lowest in history. Gone are the days when the United States could see itself as an agrarian nation where the simple values of rural life lay the foundation for our democracy.
This was the world that Thomas Jefferson presided. In his United States farmers were clearly the nation’s most valuable citizens and economically, as well as philosophically, rural America could hold its own.
That has been changing for nearly 200 years as the Industrial Revolution drove people to the cities. Rural communities held their own well into the 20th Century.
But across the Great Plains and in much of the West, the changing economics of agriculture led to a steady drop in rural areas that were not recreation destinations. Kids left and businesses closed.
Without workers these communities, could not attract new businesses. Small businesses had a hard time holding on as big box stories in nearby large towns cut into their customer base.
As we are caught in the middle of a debate over how to cut the deficit one thing appears clear. We will continue to reduce the amount of federal money that goes to rural areas.
Fewer people means that funds for housing, transportation, education and medical services, which are distributed with formulas tied to population, will drop for rural communities. Add expected cuts in farm programs and the economic power of rural communities from Kansas to Oregon will drop.
Another trend that few people discuss also contributes to the disintegration of rural communities in states like Idaho that have large swaths of public land. The federal spending for natural resource and environmental programs has dropped dramatically from the 1970s to today.
When Cecil Andrus was Interior Secretary, agencies ranging from the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service represented nearly 2.5 percent of the federal budget.
Beginning next year, after the effects of the stimulus spending are done, the trend will continue downward to less than 1 percent and by 2015 down to nearly .8 percent. Those who benefit from these programs, ranging from the timber industry to environmental groups want the public to understand that the big growth in government didn’t come from them.
So Idaho has been one of the fastest growing states in the union the last two decades but the rural gap widens. People have moved to the metropolitan areas ranging from the Treasure Valley to the Coeur d’Alene area and the corridor from Rexburg toward Pocatello.
Agrarianism, the idea that rural life is superior to urban life, run deep in America. My own roots, like many urban residents, reach back to a farm. I can relate to those who see positive traits in the rural lifestyle, inherently closer to nature than the traditional urban life.
How those values survive these population trends is uncertain.