Rural Communities Fear Budget Cuts Will Hit Hard

Guests

Dee Davis, president, Center for Rural Strategies
Kyle Hopkins, reporter, Anchorage Daily News
Kelley Snowden, program manager, Center for Regional Heritage Research at Stephen F. Austin University

The percentage of Americans living in rural areas is shrinking. As rural America changes, programs that serve those areas, like postal facilities and subsidies for commercial aviation service, are being reevaluated.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. New census figures show that rural America accounts for a smaller piece of the American pie, now just one-sixth of the country's population. And as the population dwindles, companies and agencies that serve these areas are reconsidering.

The U.S. Postal Service may close thousands of postal facilities early next year. The Federal Aviation Administration may cut subsidies that keep rural airports open, and budget cuts may hit country schools and clinics disproportionately.

If that's where you live, tell us how your life is changing. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the story of 17 mountaineers, a lightning storm and a dramatic rescue mission in Wyoming a year ago. But first, changes in rural America. And let's see if we can get started with a caller. Michael's(ph) on the line calling from Mount Sterling in Wisconsin.

MICHAEL: Yeah, hello. An old gentleman came up to me in Mount Sterling, and he said to me: They're going to close our postal office. Where are we going to get together and talk? There's a bunch of old men that get together and talk there, and they're probably talking about wise things.

But thing is this, I was just listening to NPR just last weekend about solar flares and how they had one in 1890-whatever, that was so strong that it could wipe out a satellite system, not to mention the threat of other countries wiping those out. And those systems are weak compared to horseback delivery, I mean, and I just don't think it should be eliminated.

CONAN: Horseback delivery you mean?

MICHAEL: No, the actual - yes, the horseback delivery, yes, the rural areas. It should not be eliminated. It's a crucial infrastructure, should this fragile electronic one go down.

CONAN: So without that, you would be pretty isolated?

MICHAEL: Yes, the whole world could be crippled, and it's silly how much money could be lost right there.

CONAN: All right, Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Sure.

CONAN: This email we have from Ann(ph) in Atchison, Kansas: After 20 years in rural Kansas, my family decided to liquidate our business and sell our home. Part of the decision, based on economics. My family's health insurance is over $1,000 more annually than if we lived in Lawrence. Our Internet service, food and gas, all more expensive than in Kansas City. We have no competition for our cell phone service.

Our school choices are limited. Our local school district did not meet its No Child Left Behind goals. The arts funding has been cut. Property taxes will be going up as companies leave town. Yet we are fortunate that we can move, since we are highly educated and work in technology. Living in rural Kansas has always been challenging. Now it is becoming depressing.

Joining us now is Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies. He's with us from his office in Whitesburg, Kentucky, in southeastern Kentucky, right on the border with Virginia. Nice to have you with us today.

DEE DAVIS: Thanks, Neal, nice to be here.

CONAN: And of the thousands of postal facilities that may be on the chopping block, more than 100 in Kentucky. What difference would that make?

DAVIS: Well, I don't know, maybe it's going to help. I understand that if they close 3,400 post offices, they're going to save $200 million. So that's the idea of a way that we save our economy is we save that 200 million bucks. I was just in Australia, where they've decided to invest $40 billion in a rural broadband rollout. They're building fiber all over the country.

Now, that's a country the size of the Continental United States with the population of Texas. And they see their economic future in connecting people and making sure that everybody gets a chance to compete, and we're looking at how can we shut down these post offices as a way to save money.

I guess it's approach, and it might work, but I think it fundamentally betrays the idea that we're all working together, we're all able to pitch in.

CONAN: What changes have you seen over the years in Whitesburg?

DAVIS: Well, Whitesburg has been consistently a town of around 1,500 for a long time. But these counties around here and the coal fields were much larger not that long ago. We've always been in boom-and-bust cycles that had to do with mining and always more bust than boom.

But what I've seen is that people have a kind of realism. They don't assume that things are going to change and get better. They don't expect things to be handed to them. And I think that what they also expect is that they'll get a fair shot.

We've lost about half the mining jobs in the last 10 years, and we're scheduled to lose about half more in the next five, but that doesn't mean it's not a good place to live or that there's no alternatives. I think people are trying to figure out just how they can make a living and how they can do better, and that's not really different from a lot of rural parts of the country, where we've traditionally depended on extractive industry.

CONAN: Do people there in Whitesburg feel isolated?

DAVIS: I don't think so. I mean, we're connected in lots of ways to the world. I think that we're not so far away, but I think it is important to think about how we could be better connected. The truth of it is that the country's hit a rough patch right now, and it's really time to begin to think about how we could re-imagine this idea of an inclusive nation.

So then more people could pitch in. More people could be connected. Broadband is one of the important ways to do it, but there's lots of ways that we could begin to help move the - turn the economy around. We could begin to create jobs around sustainable energy: wind solar, biomass. There's lots of ways that we could begin to transform this economy, and rural's got a role to play in that.

So I think what's important is to begin to think about how we can all pitch in, and it's really a time when everybody's needed, all the people in all the places, and we can't do that if we keep thinking about what's a little bit of the extra cost or what's the profit center. We've got to begin to re-imagine how we're all going to contribute.

CONAN: You say losing jobs over the last decade. When jobs leave, young people seem to leave, and that's - well, statistically across the country, that's the picture, and when young people leave, people stop seeing a future.

DAVIS: Well, you know, we traditionally thought of this economic theory that had to do with critical mass, about bringing people together, that we assume that that's the way all economies are going to work. But we never thought of location, location, location being your website.

I think that the promise of what we can do if we really begin to develop knowledge industries and to begin to think about how more people can contribute is that we can begin to open up the economy to other influences, let more people in, and we can all begin to help each other, even if we don't live next door.

CONAN: Dee Davis, thanks very much, and good luck to you and to Whitesburg.

DAVIS: Thanks a lot, Neal.

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies there in Whitesburg, Kentucky. Let's see if we can go next to Robert(ph), and Robert's with us from Cernley(ph) in Nevada.

ROBERT: Hi.

CONAN: And which part of Nevada is Cernley?

ROBERT: It's about 30 miles east of Reno.

CONAN: East of Reno, so headed out towards the desert there.

ROBERT: Yes, out in the desert.

CONAN: And what's happening in Cernley?

ROBERT: Recently we were - had a possibility of having to go to a four-day school week and to keep it five-day, we were going to have to pay a sort of tax or something to pay for the fifth day. And it was a big uproar in our small community, there were only about 15,000, 20,000 people, apparently.

And they just last week fixed it so that we're not going to have to pay for a fifth day, and I just think that education in schools in rural are, like, top of the chopping block, and they should be getting a lot more attention than post offices closing, I believe.

CONAN: What do people do in Cernley?

ROBERT: Try to get by, pretty much. It's pretty hard-hit from the jobs and everything, and I think our unemployment rate in Lyon County is over 14 percent, and so most people travel into Reno to work or the industrial area out here in the desert in between Reno and Fernley.

CONAN: And Reno, like Las Vegas, not doing too well.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERT: No, it's not. It's not a safe haven, that's for sure.

CONAN: Well, good luck, and glad you're going to have that fifth day of school.

ROBERT: Thank you, thank you.

CONAN: Email from Roger(ph) in Sanborton, New Hampshire: We chose to move to central New Hampshire, where there are no neighbors to be seen. If you can see your neighbor's smoke, it's time to move. A fellow up the road has gone to a town meeting many times to fight the suggestions that we improve the road.

This road is a single-lane dirt road. When I bought the house, I knew that the road was dirt. So why would I want it changed? But folks keep coming here and building McMansions. Now they're not happy. Some of those quotes from a song from the musical "Paint Your Wagon," the first thing you know, if nothing else, Roger, concludes, it's a cute little tune.

Let's see if we can go next to Judy(ph), and Judy's with us from McCall in Idaho.

JUDY: Hi, Neal, thank you for taking my cal.

CONAN: Sure.

JUDY: Yeah, I live in McCall, Idaho, which is a majority of the homes are second homes to people that live elsewhere. And so it's kind of a vacation community, a resort community. My husband worked with Tamarack Resort, which went bankrupt in 2008, and over 400 people lost their jobs. And he has not been able to find another job since then.

CONAN: Is there tension between the people who are - consider themselves real McCall residents and the - you'll forgive the expression - summer people?

JUDY: Yeah, there's kind of a class separation. You know, we're the working people. And the people that come here to vacation definitely have a different attitude towards life, I think. It appears that life is a little easier for them. Right now, the locals are pretty much struggling.

CONAN: But if those richer people weren't coming by, there wouldn't be much going on, I don't think.

JUDY: Correct, correct. Most of the jobs that the local people have are the service industry, where we take care of the city and the roads and all the services, are work in the restaurants and (unintelligible) and so forth.

CONAN: Well, Judy, good luck to you and to McCall.

JUDY: Okay, thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about the heartland. If you live in rural America, we want to know how your life is changing as population dwindles in many places. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The wide swaths of rural America, where the crops and cows that feed the country checker the landscape, are changing. Per the census, there are fewer people living there, and the average age of those who do is on the rise.

Recreational areas, where seniors head to retire, are doing fairly well, but on the whole the percentage of folks living outside cities has dropped.

If you live in a quiet part of the country, where your neighbors are miles, not inches, away, tell us how your life is changing, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we have this email from Anna(ph) in Brookings, South Dakota: The economic situation in rural America is tough, but there are great positive changes happening too. I work for a grassroots local foods and sustainable farming nonprofit called Dakota Rural Action. We see more and more people in their 20s and 30s moving to the plains states to live out their values. Prosperity for them is about sustainable, balanced lifestyle, and in this way the Dakotas are becoming richer and richer.

Joining us now from Anchorage in Alaska is Kyle Hopkins, who covers rural affairs for Anchorage Daily News, with us from member station KSKA in Anchorage. Nice to have you with us today.

KYLE HOPKINS: Hi, good to be here.

CONAN: And Alaska, I guess, like that writer from that part of South Dakota, gaining population.

HOPKINS: Yeah, there's some gains. I mean, it's a place that people want to be. It's a place that people want to visit. You know, I wouldn't say that we've seen a dramatic increase in population. It's still a tiny, tiny state and, if growing, only slowly growing.

CONAN: And is it growing in the city that many people call Los Anchorage?

HOPKINS: Los Anchorage? Yeah, I mean, that's kind of the place it would be growing, either here or on the outskirts, you know, the suburbs of Alaska, where Sarah Palin's from, you know, what's called the Matanuska Valley. But those people would be would probably be working here in Anchorage and living just outside the city.

CONAN: Well, as the rural affairs correspondent, what stories are you working on?

HOPKINS: Well, I mean I'm a reporter at the Anchorage Daily News. I don't cover as much rural affairs stories as I used to. You know, typically in the past - you know, something I have covered a lot in the past, over the past few years, I might write about just strange things that happen in remote Alaska villages that might not happen other places.

You know, if someone's attacked by a bear or mauled by a bear in Nome, I would write about that. If there's a rash of suicides in these small Alaskan native villages, I might write about that.

CONAN: You did write about that, and as part of the story, you said basically the suicide rate in Alaska about double what it is elsewhere.

HOPKINS: Absolutely, it's - statewide, it's double the rest of the nation. But what's important to note is that within the smaller communities, I mean if we're talking about the really remote rural communities, villages where, you know, the only way that you're going to get there is you're going to fly there. You can't drive. You know, you might be able to take a snow machine. You might be able to take a boat. But these are places that are very isolated from - even from me here down here in the city of Anchorage.

The rates there are much, much higher. I mean, we're talking like four, five, six times the national average.

CONAN: How do people stay connected?

HOPKINS: They stay connected the same way that everyone else, you know, in the rest of the lower 48 does. You know, they get on Facebook, right? They tweet. I mostly keep in touch with my friends in kind of the remote parts of the state just by looking at their Facebook page and seeing if they posted a picture of, you know, a seal hunt, right, or you know, maybe the ice going out on the ocean.

CONAN: Well, that's not the normal stuff that most of us have on our Facebook pages.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: You grew up in Alaska.

HOPKINS: I did. I'm from southeast Alaska. I'm from - I was born in a town called Sitka, which if you saw the movie "The Proposal" with Sandra Bullock, that's like - that's based - it wasn't actually shot there, but that's the town that it was based on.

And so I'm from the panhandle part, which is a little bit closer to Seattle than kind of the northern part. But, you know, I went to high school in a town with, you know, where I had like a dozen kids in my graduating class, and I'm from, you know, small-town Alaska.

CONAN: You also left to come to the Lower 48 for a while but changed your mind and went back. How come?

HOPKINS: That's what everybody does. I mean, show me somebody who left and then never came back. I mean, it happens, right, but most people I know, who I grew up with or who I kind of knew, you know, as I got older in college, a lot of them, they leave, but at some point you see them back. You see them back in Anchorage or Fairbanks.

And I think people - it's nice to go outside and get a perspective of what life is like in the rest of the country, but this is a fun place to live, and people tend to come back here.

CONAN: Do you think you'll ever leave?

HOPKINS: Oh, I don't know. You know, I'm raising a two-year-old here, and when I go to pick her up at grandma's house, and this is in the middle of the city, right. This is Alaska's biggest city. But when I go to pick her up, I might on the drive home, you know, we might see a couple moose in somebody's yard eating a tree or something, we'll stop and we'll look at that.

And that's pretty awesome, and I don't - you know, show me a place that's better to live than that.

CONAN: Well, congratulations. Thanks very much for your time.

HOPKINS: Okay, thanks.

Kyle Hopkins joined us from member station KSKA in Anchorage, where he covers rural affairs for the Anchorage Daily News. Let's go next to Deirdre(ph), Deirdre with us from Henderson in Kentucky.

DEIRDRE: Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I'm calling to reinforce what some of your other callers have said about the positive parts of rural America. I moved back to the farm that I was raised on when my son entered kindergarten, and he's now 17. He's writing his college essay about being raised on a farm.

So he can speak to having raised a deer since she was a faun. She came in the house and ate blueberries, and we'd have to shoo her out to go to school. And I think what I've seen is that even though we live in a rural community, many of the other of his peers have never been fishing, have never ridden a horse, don't know how to identify a crop in the field, and it's sad to me how disengaged rural people can be from their own environment.

CONAN: Disengaged from their own environment, not taking advantage of the things that are, well, everybody else would consider attractions.

DEIRDRE: Yes, and so it's a joy when we're getting ready for harvest here in a month or two, and - (clears throat) - excuse me - you know, a combine ride would be like an amusement park thrill. It truly is. And, you know, we're lucky because we literally get to see things change over the seasons, over the years, and it's not a manicured front yard in suburbia, but it is absolutely - it certainly has shaped who he is.

Aside from his work ethic or - he is one of the privileged. I told your screener, I mean less than two percent of the American population lives on a working farm.

CONAN: And what do you grow on your farm?

DEIRDRE: Primarily corn and soybeans, sometimes winter wheat. And you know, the crops are rotated. So right now my view is of corn that's nine feet tall.

CONAN: Nine feet tall.

DEIRDRE: Nine feet tall because it had to be totally replanted this spring because of floods. I mean, we have calamity.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Different order of magnitude, different set of priorities, I should say.

DEIRDRE: Yes, yes. So it's a very positive thing, even with the tradeoffs that we make.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

DEIRDRE: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email - or excuse me, a tweet, from Diana(ph): We live in Glade Park, Colorado, wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but drive 13 miles for mail, super-slow Internet via Verizon. School district cut our school, now going charter. No land lines for phone or Internet. Verizon is the only game in town. Our rural area is not losing population but trending to McMansions. Let's go next to Wolf(ph) and Wolf with us from Alma in Arizona.

WOLF: That's actually Arkansas.

CONAN: Arkansas, excuse me.

WOLF: I run two businesses in rural Arkansas. One is a printing company. And it's doing poorly. It reflects the economy, as a printing company is kind of a canary in a coal mine and a service to other businesses.

But my other business, which I run three days a week in a town not far away, is skydiving, and it's booming.

CONAN: Really?

WOLF: And I think the reason that it's booming, you know, we're busier than we've ever been, we've been doing this for 20 years, is I think it's the economy is bad. You can't afford - you know, folks can't afford to take their family to Florida for a week, but they can afford a $200 thrill ride. I mean, it's just my thoughts on it.

CONAN: What kind of plane do you use?

WOLF: I actually have three aircraft, Two Cessna 182s and a 1959 Beech 18 Twin.

CONAN: And you take people up how high before you push them out of a perfectly good airplane?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WOLF: Oh, generally between 9,000 and 11,000 feet.

CONAN: And how long does that drop take?

WOLF: Freefall is going to be 30 seconds or so, canopy ride five to seven minutes.

CONAN: And people come down feeling pretty good about themselves?

WOLF: I had a Baptist preacher said that was the most fun he'd ever had with his clothes on.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Well, that's an endorsement for you.

WOLF: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Wolf. Good luck to you.

WOLF: You bet, bye-bye.

CONAN: Kelley Snowden joins us now from her office in Nacogdoches in Texas, where she's a program manager at the Center for Regional Heritage Research at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches. She lives about an hour from there, in a town just over a tenth that size, Overton, Texas. Kelley Snowden, nice to have you on the program today.

KELLEY SNOWDEN: Hey, how are you?

CONAN: I read a piece that you wrote, and you said the first time you drove into Overton, you thought you were seeing a town that was drying up and blowing away.

SNOWDEN: Well, yeah. Sometimes, first impressions really aren't inaccurate.

CONAN: What's it like?

SNOWDEN: Overton is a small town of about 2,300 people. It was hit hard over the - in the '80s and has been in a economic downturn. We do have a lot of vacant buildings, most are privately owned, that are up for sale - some are for sale, some aren't. It's difficult to do anything about economic redevelopment in Overton because the people don't want to turn loose of the structures. You know, they want to sell them. They, I think, ask too much for them. But - so we're kind of stalled right now in terms of economic development. But we have about 30 business, things ranging from, you know, our two funeral homes to a couple of boutiques, things like that.

CONAN: But stalled on a couple of, well, it seemed to be fairly simple civic projects, putting another picnic table in the park and building some replacement concrete steps from the parking lot back up to the school.

SNOWDEN: Right. That's from that Photovoice project that I conducted in Overton. And those are small things that can be conducted at the community level, at the grassroots level. And we're hoping to get those off the drawing board and into action. With every little step we make, we can build momentum. So we start - we're going to start small and move forward.

CONAN: And yet, there are still problems, every time a business closes - the flower store that has been there for so long - it's seems like you're losing part of the community?

SNOWDEN: Yes. The longer a business has been there, the more attached people are to it. The people that run it are your friends. And economic development in a rural area is very personal. It's not, you know, in a city, you know, when you see a big store closing, you don't tend to think of the individuals. In a rural area, you think of the individual owner and the few employees they have and what it means when that business closed down. And not only job loss, but a loss of a service to the community.

CONAN: And at this point, is the community - at some point, you lose, you know, critical mass.

SNOWDEN: That's very true. And one of the jobs in economic development, when you're dealing with a small town like Overton, is to see if you can help that town re-engage its identity, find itself again, so to speak, and that has to be done at the grassroots level. You can't bring in a big box store and do that. It has to come from the heart of the community.

CONAN: You talked about something called heritage tourism, where towns like Overton can try to attract people to visit by attracting them through their cemetery?

SNOWDEN: That's a possibility here. Tourism can certainly be a part of your economic landscape. It's not going to be your driving sector by any means. But, sure, Gladewater has been fairly successful with antiques tourism and heritage tourism. There are examples of these throughout east Texas, but it's never the lead. It's part of the overall service sector. But you can get it going if you get the momentum going. You can pull in other complimentary activities to support it, such as motels and cafes and things like that. The trick is getting it done and getting the word out there, getting people to know about what you're doing.

CONAN: And are you confident in the future of Overton?

SNOWDEN: I want to be. I really do want to be confident. Overton is a nice little town. It deserves a second chance. There are some people in the community that are working very hard to try and reinvigorate the population. They've started a small farmer's market. It only has a couple of people right now, but it's a first step. There's a - where a building burned down, they've created a public space, which is where the farmer's market is. And they have bands that come in on the weekends. So, you know, we have a small group of very active individuals who are trying to get people to believe in their community again.

CONAN: Well, good luck. Thank you very much for your time.

SNOWDEN: Thank you.

CONAN: Kelley Snowden, with us today from her office in Nacogdoches, Texas. You can find a link to her piece about the town where she lives, Overton, on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Angie(ph), Angie with us from Shawnee in Kansas.

ANGIE: Hi, there. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ANGIE: I'm actually from a small town called Butler, Missouri. And when have I graduated - I was going to say I graduated in 2001. And after I left, the sports began to decline, kids were more involved with drugs. When I went back to visit, there were no high schoolers going to football games. And then in the past couple of years, the school saw that this was happening and they asked the small business owners in the community to help out and started a program called Bear Backers - and bear, as in B-E-A-R.

But as they have pooled money together to buy new uniforms for the sports teams, the high schoolers go to the games now. The business owners go to the games even if they don't have children in the high school. And every single class now has a float, I hear, at the homecoming parade. When I went, there were only a handful of people went to those parades in the past few years, and now the whole community supports the high school. So even though the high school didn't have the resources to bring the community together, just asking made it possible.

CONAN: That sounds great.

ANGIE: And as a town - that's a town about - of about four to 6,000 people.

CONAN: Angie, thanks very much for the call. Nice to hear about the revival there.

ANGIE: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: This from Gail(ph) in - this - Davis, California: Interesting to note the trends taking place in most of rural America with regard to population movements are the opposite in California, where our rural regions are experiencing population influxes. But funding streams and federal support are being cut still in rural California. A part of this is the re-designation of rural regions in California to what the government calls metropolitan regions. As a result, some of California's rural communities are caught in the middle. They are getting fewer rural development dollars while experiencing rural challenges. Central Valley has some of the highest unemployment, housing foreclosure and crime rates in the country.

This from Chris(ph) in Laramie: I recently moved to Wyoming for a job. I wouldn't ever want to leave. I love the feelings of freedom and self-reliance that the low population engenders. The relatively few inconveniences of living away from a major city are far outweighed by the benefits of a slower pace of life and greater general happiness.

Well, stay with us. When we come back, another story from Wyoming, as it happens. Grand Teton and lightning and mountain climbers. A dramatic rescue is involved as well. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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