Time For Action On Rural Policies

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Since the Nov. 8 presidential election a lot of stories, columns and editorials have been written about how starkly the lines of support for Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump were drawn throughout America. But the lines they all focus on aren’t the ones between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, but between rural Americans and big city Americans.

Rural America is less educated, more down and out, losing the promise of the American dream, more white, older, less diverse, less tolerant, more prejudiced, and less accepting of change. The list goes on.

“The widening political divergence between cities and small-town America also reflects a growing alienation between the two groups, and a sense — perhaps accurate — that their fates are not connected,” an analysis in The New York Times says. “The election reinforces the feeling that the prosperity of many metropolitan areas is not shared by the rest of the country.”

“Rural whites are suspicious of big institutions and big government, located in big cities with big populations of people who don’t look like them,” New York Times Columnist Charles Blow writes.

“People in big cities, living cosmopolitan lives among diverse populations that resemble a tub of rainbow-colored ice cream, may be weary of institutions for other reasons, but they are less likely to blame diversity and inclusion for their problems, and are therefore less amenable to the destructive message of Donald Trump,” he states.

Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic Magazine, “Echoes of this struggle to define the nation’s identity and direction are growing louder today. This campaign crystallized the long-developing separation between a Democratic Party centered in the urban areas at the forward edge of growing racial diversity, new family and sexual arrangements, and the transition to a globalized information economy; and a Republican Party consolidating a deepening hold on the non-metropolitan places where many view those changes with suspicion, if not hostility.”

Many columns and articles focus on a sense of what we rural Americans have lost.

“Rural voters feel they’ve lost something, that America is moving away from them,” Nick Carey writes in a Reuters article quoting political science professor Steven Schier who teaches at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. “Trump came up with the perfect slogan for them in ‘Make America Great Again’ because it hits them exactly where they live,” he told Carey.

Americans living in the big population centers on the east and west coasts, solid Democratic strongholds, have their problems but still seem to be thriving. The seven county metropolitan Twin Cities is rapidly growing while rural Minnesota suffers population loss and a declining economy.

“…The very things that drive success in Silicon Valley’s tech industry, or New York City’s financial sector, are what worries rural America: globalization, foreign trade, immigration,” the Times article says. What’s more, unlike when the success of American industry was tied to the health and success of the middle class, there is now a disconnect. “Goldman Sachs and Google do not really need America to be a broad-based middle-class success in order for them to be personally successful.”

Trump and the Republican Party capitalized on this sense of loss, frustration, anxiety over changes in the way their communities look, their economic insecurity, and the rapid changes in social norms that more religious and socially conservative rural voters reject.

For the most part, it is hard to disagree with these observations about what motivated rural voters as they headed to the polls Nov. 8. But there is more to the story.

What drags rural Minnesotans down is the constant losing battle to keep our schools adequately funded so that our students have the same classroom opportunities as students in the big city schools. While they can fund a broad array of subjects for their children, we face cuts to language, music and art classes. We don’t have the same depth of course offerings in the sciences.

What demoralizes rural Minnesotans is the number of storefronts in our small towns that stand vacant. It is driving through small neighboring towns that were once vibrant that are now nearly empty.

What makes us anxious is the steadily rising cost of medical care that forces us to accept deductibles that can equal half a year’s income and premiums that are bigger than rent or house payments.

What keeps young people away and prevents us from recruiting and keeping new workers is the lack of day care for our children. It is having to drive 60 miles round-trip or more to find day care or taking a child with to an out-of-town job where day care is available.

Yes, big global issues have an impact on our votes, but it is the daily grind against a declining rural economy that wears us down. “All politics is local,” the saying goes.

Can the Republican Party bring a message of hope to rural Minnesota? Can it address the declining population, create the incentives that give young people a reason to move here and raise their families? Can it provide the incentives for business that address economic development needs as well as employee recruitment and retention challenges?

If Democrats want to win back Swift County, as well as the rest of rural Minnesota, they must be seen as addressing these very same challenges with innovative legislation. Introduce legislation that provides funding for day care facilities in rural Minnesota. Push for more funding for rural schools. Come up with ideas that help resettle rural Minnesota.  Governor Dayton has to be seen supporting the opening of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton rather than blocking it, favoring adding on to a prison in the Twin Cities instead.

In his assessment of the why Democrats lost, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said, “There wasn’t an overarching theme that a person in a small town could go, ‘Oh, they’re talking about me.’”

Democrats and Republicans, we are listening to hear if you will be not just talking about us, but doing something for us.

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