The every decade US Census is an invaluable tool for identifying, among other things, how Americans keep up with technology, where government will focus investments and remittances in the future, and the rate by with we move from one place to another. Here in Carroll County we learned that population has generally decreased west of the Kings River and increased east of it, and that more than half our residents were born "someplace else."
Few of us know that a more targeted data source, at least with respect to rural America, is available from USDA's National Agricultural Statistical Service (NASS) which, back in 2008, accurately reported the trend which is now our circumstance. I know about NASS only because I've participated in a US Department of Defense study group on community food security.
What NASS reports--and a similar UN agency reports as a world wild trend--is a generally swift transfer of population from rural areas to urban areas. In the US, most growth is in 3rd ring suburbs of large metropolitan areas, or to smaller cities like Springfield, Missouri. Rural communities that are gaining population today are invariably towns supported by extracting businesses--mining, lumbering, fossil fuels, or agricultural processing corporations like Tysons.
Nebraska is a good example of how population shifts. Since WWII that state's population has moved east with the net result that western Nebraska is barely populated while nearly 70% of its population lives along a 90 mile I-80 corridor between Lincoln and Omaha. The same story is told throughout the Midwest and west.
Some extracting industry jobs pay well, but for the most part processing agricultural products into food does not, and historically, the trend is toward lower wages. For example, in 1976 meatpackers made $10.76 an hour on average and had a fairly good benefits package. Today, almost 40 years later, the average hourly starting wages for a meatpacker is around $11.00 an hour and with benefits that are significantly less comprehensive than those enjoyed by 1976s' workers.
Lower wages and benefits for rural production workers have consequential impacts for rural communities. Specifically, immigrant labor is frequently required to fill lower wage jobs with resulting increases in costs for education, social services, and so on. Communities become more diverse and culturally dynamic but, overall, have lower per capita and family incomes.
Economic changes also impacts population movement, as does the effectiveness of local government's development strategies. One industry towns fare poorly while more diversified communities stabilize or expand their base. Resourceful and smart public servants and voters act on the knowledge that economic systems are like river systems and require integrated, coordinated, and intelligent management to optimize opportunities and avoid sudden bad weather, whether economic or natural.
Similarly, the weakening of, for example, far away public service worker unions may decrease the potential of such middle income earners to afford retirement homes in nearby places like Holiday Island. Obviously, we all live downstream and not everything that "happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."
Economic downturns and shifts in population often result in a scarcity mentality as communities and organizations scramble to get their "fair share" of a dwindling pot of money. This week, a Holiday Islander remarked that it was probably time for HI to get its own public library since "our tax dollars pull so much of the freight around here." And so it goes.
It will be interesting to see, and consequential to measure, if our local governments will be able to grasp and respond to the economic and demographic realities of how we live today--and tomorrow. Our recent conversations about better ways to manage water in Carroll County, and about the repeal or stay of ACT 74, are good conversations to have and signal at least a beginning recognition that we all have a stake in the game.