Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Small Town Values

I used to shop often at an antique store in a regional city near my home in rural South Dakota. It was a regular day-off stop, so much so that I got to know one of the shop managers pretty well. We'd talk a little about the antique business, farm auctions, folk crafts and regional artists. There were certain items that they wouldn't carry in the store, because there wasn't any market, she said. Most people didn't have money for that.

Then she said something that has stayed with me for over ten years.

"They really take advantage of the hard-working people of this state."

What do you mean? I asked.

She said, the business community and the political community in her town banded together to keep wages low, knowing that most people would by their nature work hard no matter how little they were getting paid.

I've been thinking about "small town values" lately. We love those small town values: work hard, go to church, know your neighbors, care about each other. We love those small town values: independence, simple living, growing gardens, telling stories, knowing your history, knowing your limits.

But, it's a funny thing.

Those great small towns, the best places to raise children, the backbone of our country: most of them don't seem to be doing very well. My town, for example, had no bank, no school, no cafe, no grocery store and no gas station. Just the church, and the grain elevator, and the post office.

Not all small towns are in the the same boat, I know. A few have figured out creative ways to flourish. Some benefit by their proximity to larger cities.

Still, I wonder, if we love small towns so much, if we think they are such good places to raise future citizens, why are they getting to be endangered species?

While I don't agree with everything in this article, it does give some excellent food for thought.

13 comments:

Barbara B. said...

I think part of the problem for many small towns has been the demise of family farms. (Government policies have supported agribusiness and factory farms instead.) And I hate to see that happen for a number of reasons...

CJWille said...

Where I grew up new Walnut Grove, MN, there used to be 2-3 farmsteads in a square mile, now it is 2-3 farms in 4 square miles. It's economy of scale. The DFL (Democratic FARM Labor) used to have sway in Washington, and it hasn't the scale to influence. This includes subsidies, futures pricing on grains, and the ability to borrow to plant. Influence goes where the money is. If you stay where your heart is, you stay among like minded folks and it is a way of life, not a job.

Diane said...

Barbara & CJ, I think you are right. I found a great article by Thomas Frank that I want to link to, but I don't want to lay blame, as he does, to just one of the political parties. I do think that farm policy has favored corporate farms.

Maybe i'll link to it, anyway.

FranIAm said...

What a thought provoking post.

I must ponder before I comment.

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

What an eye-opening perspective that woman had.

As Fran said, a thought-provoking post.

"PS" (a.k.a. purple) said...

It is interesting as I am in the call process and grew up in a small town area (although we lived on a farm)...committees assume that was a good experience and I would want to repeat it.

ProclaimingSoftly (PSanafter-thought) said...

Since this is a town of 620, I guess I know small towns. Towns fold up if they are too close to a city with stores. Our town is just far enough from a small city, just barely far enough. We will be getting a four lane road to that city within a year...how that will balance out with the higher gas prices, I wonder, because people will travel to save money on goods and groceries. Ironically, the small city has lost out to a bigger city that is 75 miles away on a four lane road. When gas prices were low, the kids, ours and their friends, ALWAYS wanted to travel to the bigger city for everything.

If the small town has low wages, then don't blame the residents for traveling to save money. Let's hope that they consider how much they will save compared to the cost of traveling.

This area, however, has higher wages than some rural areas. The unions that were strong here in the past make a difference.

My sister says that in her rural area in Wisconsin, $8/hour is considered high and there are no stores without traveling 30 miles on curvy two lane roads.

RevDrKate said...

I was just thinking some similar thoughts this morning as I listened to MPR's coverage of some of the speechifying being done to "small-town folks" using some of the same rhetoric. Living in the "big town" that is surrounded by the small towns that are in various stages of demise I found the the article and your post thought-provoking as well.

Singing Owl said...

Wow! Very interesting. Sad too.

Border Explorer said...

Diane, I really liked the point of your post and the WSJournal article as well. But you don't agree with the article entirely, and I wonder where you're taking issue with it? I think I'm missing something.

Diane said...

Border Explorer -- I would not lay blame on only one political party in this. That's what I would take issue with.

Border Explorer said...

Thanks, Diane; that was helpful. I agree.

Lindy said...

Well, we have to ask what's caused the demise of the family farm... it's the fact that none of us pays the value of what we buy. The subsidies have made the cost to purchase less than the cost to produce. It's complicated... We are all complicit. I don't know what to do about it either.