Rural America Out Of Step With Its Future

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

Rural America has an image problem.

It’s a growing problem that could stand in the way of exactly what we need to turn around our dwindling population and struggle to maintain our workforce

We are growing older and more conservative just when we are in desperate need of attracting young people of the millennial generation to our communities who are more open-minded, more diverse, and more tolerant of those who aren’t like them.

Why is it important that rural America be a place where millennials are willing to look for a home and a place to work? The answer is in the numbers. An estimated 35 percent of today’s workforce is from the millenial generations – those born between 1981 and 1997. They are between the ages of 22 and 38. The non-partisan Pew Research Center estimates that more than 1 million millenial women are becoming mothers each year. Young families and workers are what rural America needs to survive and thrive.

Many of those working in factories and businesses in rural America are from the Baby Boom generation, those born between 1946 and 1964. They are between the ages of 54 and 72 today. They are leaving the workforce in increasingly rapid numbers.

From immigration and race to foreign policy and the scope of government millennials stand apart from older generations, Pew found. “And on many issues, millennials continue to have a distinct – and increasingly liberal – outlook. Just 27 percent of millennials approve of Trump’s job performance, while 65 percent disapprove,” according to a Pew survey on Trump’s first year as president.

Rural America, with its older population, has been a big supporter of Trump.

Rural legislators and members of Congress are increasingly Republicans on the far right of politics rather than the mainstream moderate conservatives of past decades. The fear of losing a primary battle to someone even more conservative then they are keeps them toeing positions that hold rural America back and damages its future.

It is millennials and their children who will see the increasingly devastating impacts of climate change, but today’s Republicans led by Trump deny it is happening. If they give any concession on the argument, it is that it may be happening, but humans are not the cause. The position is contrary to what 96 percent of the climate scientists in the world have found through thorough research and observation.

The White House National Climate Assessment was appropriately released on Black Friday. Many have said that the release on the biggest shopping day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving, was a ploy to bury it while everyone was too busy to notice. The report was scheduled to be released in December.

Timing the release early could come back to haunt Trump and conservatives. Black Friday’s climate report could take on a substantially different meaning in the future, one that aptly names the message it sent to Americans about the future.

“Warmer and drier conditions have contributed to an increase in large forest fires in the western United States and interior Alaska,” AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein writes about the report. “The federal report says the last few years have smashed records for damaging weather in the U.S., costing nearly $400 billion since 2015.”

And it is going to get worse.

“Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the report says.  That includes worsening air pollution causing heart and lung problems, more diseases from insects, the potential for a jump in deaths during heat waves, and nastier allergies, Borenstein reports. More devastating deluges and more extensive droughts are in the future.

The Lower 48 states have warmed 1.8 degrees since 1900 with 1.2 degrees in the last few decades, according to the report. By the end of the century, the U.S. will be 3 to 12 degrees hotter depending on how much greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere, he writes in his coverage of the report.
“We are seeing the things we said would be happening, happen now in real life,” said report co-author Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. “As a climate scientist it is almost surreal.”

Another consequence of climate change will be a more politically unstable world as people fleeing areas too hot for traditional crops to grow and where water becomes more scarce migrate in ever larger numbers.

Immigrants will be essential to rural America’s growth, and the immigrants are not going to look like the immigrants who came from Europe in the 1800s and early 1900s. Yet the current Republicans serving in state and federal governments seek to make Americans fear immigrants. It’s working. While the vast majority are seeking a new home where their family will be safe and where they can find a job, they have been vilified as criminals.

Millennials, who are far more ethnically, socially and religiously diverse, won’t be attracted to a community that holds such prejudices.

This generation also grew up with the gay and transgender community’s fight for equal rights. Many don’t tolerate past prejudices inherent in older generations. Yet, rural Americans remain far more closed minded about gay and transgender people – keeping them from considering returning to their rural childhood homes.

If rural America wants to improve its chances of growth and prosperity, it needs to become more accepting and more diverse in its thinking – just like the millennials it needs. If we are too rigid for acceptance, we can continue down our path to becoming rural ghost towns.

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