Rural development

Posted: Mar 08, 2001 12:00 AM
The majority of America's political leaders come from urban areas. Not surprisingly then, they speak to the issues that are of unique concern to the urban voting populace - urban sprawl, mass transit and corporate tax structures engineered to haul our economy forward. Receiving considerably less attention are the unique social and economic needs of rural America. Defined in the popular conscience as "other-than-urban," rural America is increasingly consigned to myth, a nostalgic vestige of a time when this country was raw and unformed. For many, the movement away from rural America represents evolution. After all, man has always defined himself by his ability to build against space. Where once there was vast stretches of land, man has now fashioned a world of right angles. The ability to subdue the earth is a triumph of technology and the clearest sign of man's progress. As our landscape continues to be dominated by shimmering towers and new cultural fables (technology as our motherland), it becomes increasingly easy to regard rural America as little more than an idea, a collective memory gleaned from our history books. Perhaps that's why I am often accused of a certain romanticism when I talk about the deteriorating infrastructure of rural America. But for me, rural America is anything but a myth. After all, I grew up on a farm in South Carolina. At the break of every dawn, my 10 brothers and sisters and I tilled soil, slopped pigs and cropped tobacco. Our family's farm was small, but my father's pride in it was such that it all but transformed the daily drudgery into a spiritual mandate. Having felt my hands move against the earth every morning, I know the qualities of consistency, hard work and individual striving that are necessary to maintain stewardship of the land. Though I learned these qualities young, I continue to carry them with me as a constant source of rejuvenation. And so I am deeply saddened when I see this culture begin to unravel. In my hometown of Marion, S.C., for example, the Russell Stover plant recently closed, after 33 years. My aunt Mary Sue worked there, financing her children's education; the same with my aunt Lou Penn. The Russell Stover plant supported our family, our community. The devastating effects are characteristic of the new pragmatism of modern corporate America, where manufacturing plants are routinely relocated overseas. By shutting down and relocating their manufacturing plants, corporations can often secure more beneficial tax structures, while lowering salaries and sidestepping America's tough environmental regulations. Meanwhile, the small towns these plants used to support are turning skeletal. The deteriorating nature of our rural centers should be of interest to all - not just in terms of romantic longing, but also due to the fact that rural America continues to produce a good portion of this country's wealth and raw materials. Just as we dedicate resources to the economic development of our urban centers, so to should we remain vigilant about the unique needs and contributions of our rural centers. This does not merely mean funneling more funds into our rural centers, it means changing the infrastructure through empowerment strategies. As the closing of the Russell Stover plant showed us, there is a real need for small towns like Marion to change their infrastructure so that all their eggs aren't in one basket. By backing the creation of educational training facilities and technical colleges, rural America can cultivate a more skilled and flexible workforce and attract outside investment from corporate America. Though our urban centers - with their inherent promise of technological, cultural and economic development - seems to rent more space in our imaginations, we cannot allow rural America to fall by the wayside. I say this not out of romantic longing, but merely because rural America remains tied to this country's economy. To neglect this fact, is to court disaster.