Rural America Needs Investment To Stop Polarization

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

America is becoming ever more polarized. We see it in the dysfunction in Washington and St. Paul. Moderate elected leaders are rare as the fringes of their parties control elections by dominating candidate selection in primaries while the majority of the electorate sits on the sidelines.

The internet, with is ability to learn what we like and don’t like in the news, feeds us with information that reinforces our prejudices. Rather than a source of trusted news, it is known for spreading rumors and intentionally false and misleading information.

Social media that consumes our online time end up not being very social at all. In fact, they have us in bitter disputes, raging at one another with diminished tolerance for those with differing opinions. Rather than unite us, it divides us.

On his Sunday CNN program GPS, Fareed Zakaria said he sees a way to knit our fractured society back together – national service.

Military service, especially service in a war zone, builds strong bonds between people who come from all walks of life. Presidents John F. Kennedy and George Herbert Walker Bush created strong bonds of friendship with the average working man during their military service.

Actor Jimmy Steward, singer Elvis Presley, and Star Trek author Gene Rodenberry all served in the military forging bonds of friendship during war. Prince Harry, an heir to the British throne, fought alongside the common man in Afghanistan.

These bonds knew no polarization based on status or wealth, or geography. National service has the potential recreate and forge a similar bond in today’s youth, Zakaria proposes. It would place as many as 1 million young people in service jobs helping communities across the country in the areas of education, community projects, fighting poverty, cleaning the environment, helping the elderly and mentoring youth.

In promoting national service Zakaria points to the very healthy U.S. economy that is in its 120th month of expansion and not showing signs of slowing down. He points to near record unemployment, low inflation, the earnings of workers improving, and an economy with productivity of the American worker, already among the best in world, improving.

But the geographic story of America’s financial well-being is one of a divided nation. Metropolitan regions and their core big cities have reaped the greatest rewards and continue to do so. Zakaria quotes Mark Muro of the Brookings Institution showing that “the 53 largest American metro areas have accounted for 71 percent of all population growth, two-thirds of all employment growth and a staggering three-quarters of all economic growth. In fact, half of all job growth in the United States took place in just 20 cities.”

This story of unequal growth and economic vibrancy is also the story of Minnesota. The seven-county metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul is thriving while many rural counties are slowly, painfully shrinking. Small towns and rural America have lost residents and contributed barely anything to economic growth, he writes.

“This two-track economy has produced a two-track culture, with urbanites and rural Americans increasingly living in their own distinct worlds of news, entertainment and consumer goods,” Zakaria says. The result is a Congress today that is more polarized than it has been since the end of the Civil War.

“Young educated people are fleeing small towns and rural areas to find opportunities in big cities,” he says, creating a “brain drain then depresses growth in left-behind areas, which in turn drives more educated people out. It’s a classic spiral: up for cities, down for rural areas.”

The implication of his analysis is that those of us left in rural America are more culturally conservative on immigration, guns and issues of sexual orientation, putting us at odds with urban residents. We are less skilled with lower paying jobs in “physical” labor leading to economic disparity. This economic and social disparity is resulting in ever-deeper clashes between rural and metro residents of America.

 “Imagine if in today’s America the sons and daughters of hedge-fund managers, tech millionaires and bankers spent a year with the children of coal miners and farmers, working in public schools or national parks or the armed forces,” Zakaria writes.

Zakaria says that a voluntary national service program with incentives as student loan forgiveness and support for tuition costs in the future could act as incentive for young people to join.

Many of the rich and famous who have served in the military in the past were motivated by patriotism. Those who serve in today’s AmeriCorps program are largely from a class of society well below that of rich, famous and powerfully connected in society. What would motivate the son or daughter of the extremely wealthy to serve today? They certainly don’t have any school debt to pay off.

 “National service will not solve all of America’s problems. But it might bring us together as a nation. And that is the first crucial step forward,” Zakaria writes.

But we have to ask, to what end? Will the “sons and daughters of hedge-fund managers, tech millionaires and bankers” go back to their rarified world and begin to lobby for legislation that improves rural economies, that funds our schools on a equal basis with metropolitan schools, or finds a way to reverse the population drain from rural small towns?

To reverse the growing divide between rural America and the metropolitan areas of the country we have to first address the growing disparities.

“We see the forces that are pulling America apart. The question we should be focused on is: What can we do to bring the country together? Surely, this has become the question of our times,” Zakaria writes.

If you want the answer to that question, create jobs in rural America and create incentives for the workers to live in a small rural town. Create programs that make affordable housing available. Fund programs that help rural America improve education and daycare. Give us the means to improve the social opportunities in our communities.

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