The term rural holds different meanings to different people, but for many, is a reminder of pastoral fields and small towns that are as attractively old fashioned in fabricated imagery as Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Places where farmers operate on using every minute of the day while the sun is still up, where the town fair queen is treated like royalty, and the high school football quarterback is better known than Hollywood celebrities. The power and persistence of the idea of small-town life demonstrates as a shaping force in American culture and as a global symbol. Main street, small town, and community are not synonymous terms but have overlapped in the discussion of place in Americana. Each of these terms brings different meanings: Main Street is the specific name of a location in many towns, but it also instills an idealized place (Orvell). Small Towns can refer to historical locations or political culture, and community can mean not only the place, but political composition of the place. The 2016 presidential election painted rural towns as rusted out communities with little to no opportunity for progress, with the candidates promising to revitalize the job market and economy in the towns.
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America’s greatest export in small towns is no longer just produce from farmland but rather young people living in rural farming communities seeking economic opportunities in urban areas. A growing trend in the last couple of generations of farming communities is seeing young people move away to urban centers seeking higher education, often never to return to the small quiet towns. Graduating high school classes in rural areas, students that are told they are destined for greatness, whether excelling in academics or extracurricular activities, are put on a path for college preparation, and find themselves moving to cities seeking higher education, experiencing diversity they have never seen before. Not only diversity in race, ethnic religion affiliation, or sexual identity, but diversity in economic opportunity. They are exposed to potential higher paying jobs than perhaps their families have yet to see in their lives. Young people who move away can often find it challenging to return to a place that may feel stuck in the past, especially where economic and social progress is concerned.
The economic and demographic shift is changing the nation. Those who do stay are faced with a string of problems. It becomes difficult to attract and keep talented teachers, and thus public school systems start to fail and sometimes close (Wuthrow). Certification requirements for teachers do little to cause a stumble of supply within urban and suburban regions, but rural districts struggle to find one qualified teacher per subject. If the policy environment can be improved, appropriate solutions developed by ambitious educators can help reform rural education. Fostering opportunities for youth with a spectrum of backgrounds by proffering mentorships, apprenticeships, and job opportunities to make small towns economically sound places to settle can help start to stabilize the community. When young people finish high school in rural areas their options are often a simple choice between staying and working in industry or business locally available, or leaving to pursue higher education or other types of work. There are young people working multiple minimum wage jobs to get by, or commuting long distances to one of a few jobs left with the hopes of stability. Carrying the hope with them to not seeing their current employment be another on the list of closed businesses moving out of the area. For their previous generations, agriculture and manufacturing supported entire communities, lodging and park industries boomed, while family farming dominated the area. There were multiple opportunities to stay in rural communities. Students who are able to leave for college education often do not return as the economic standards in the communities has declined. Instead of providing a pathway for young people to reach outside of their communities with the possibility of returning with knowledge of new experiences to open small businesses or work in upper management, rural public schools have become an institution to educate students for labor markets and communities elsewhere. High school graduates leave rural places and cannot return, even if they want to, with any confidence to make a sustainable living. Until rural communities create sufficient economic opportunities for college-educated community members, change cannot occur. Large areas of rural America struggle to educate in public schools effectively to preserve communities. A custom education system made for rural communities could ensure that those who wish to stay in their community and those who wish to seek opportunities outside of the community have access to career education while still in high school with an emphasis placed on nurturing and supporting students.
A separate but not distance pool of young people who stay could be drowning in millions of dollars in farm loan debt while trying to keep alive the promise and tradition of multi-generational family run farms. The decline is shaped by patterns in employment, with many farmer’s investments being forced in labor-saving machinery, commercial pesticides, and other efforts to increase productivity. These investments not only decrease the demand for farm labor but instead create a competitive environment forcing small producers out of the farming sector. Small farmers sell their holdings to large operators leaving few agriculture-related businesses in the areas. In recent years the American food system has become more consolidated. Farmers who were once producing a diverse range of products and crops ranging from dairy, vegetables, corn, wheat, and soybeans are forced into producing or growing a single crop, plant, or livestock species to try to support their households. A development that is known as monoculture agriculture and commodity crops. Monoculture agriculture is separate from traditional crops and growing food. Monoculture’s main technique is to replant the same crop species in the same field, year after year, without cycling through other forms of crop types. Monocultures downfall is seen in the form of plant growth by the reuse of the same soil, instead of a rotation of a couple of different crops following a cycle which can lead to plant diseases that attack crops and decrease them in quantity. The use of chemical pesticides damages the land by infiltrating the soil, and at times are dragged by rainwater into bodies of water nearby causing potential harm to surrounding wildlife. Over time the land mineral value begins to decrease which impacts the quality of food that is produced. To keep up a profit margin that is worth keeping the farm, they are forced to grow to larger and larger sizes with greater implements.
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Farm subsidies provided by the federal government are supposed to help agricultural producers manage production from year to year. The subsidies get categorized into the conversation as disaster and commodity subsidies. EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database tracks $322 billion farm subsidies from commodity, crop insurance, disaster programs, and conservation payments paid between 1995 and 2014. Most of the subsidies result in less than $1000 a year to the farms, some years resulting in $0, varying by type of crop (Ewg). It is nearly impossible for younger people to start farming in America. The investment is too great for those who want to become involved in agriculture labors of the land, whether they have moved away and wish to return to their hometown, or have never lived in a rural community, it’s a difficult attempt to take on. As urban areas seek out local and sustainable food, the pool of young people ready to take on those risks, or simply able to do so, is increasingly slim.
The instability in farming communities and a young person’s role in rural towns have an impact on politics. The 2016 presidential election presented an example of the increase in political polarization in the United States. Younger generations leaving rural communities play a role in the divide by leaving behind a less diverse perspective. When there are fewer young people in small-town communities as civic leaders and voters, it results in a smaller number of people who can present new ideas surrounding progressive change. Rural America is often backed by Republicans in presidential elections, voting as a conservative community. The enthusiasm rural communities showed for President Trump in the 2016 election was brought to light by the votes from small-town counties across America that swamped his Democratic rival. Residents of Rural America turned out in large enough numbers to help provide a needed victory in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa (Shearer). Trump took a consistent message to small towns on the discussion of lost manufacturing jobs and trade policies which struck a chord with the people who had been raised in rural areas. Trump brought promises to free up money for infrastructural improvements with the guarantee he would personally bargain with companies who were considering relocation. He relied heavily on the support of the small farming communities that typify middle-America and was able to establish the grassroots foundation for his campaign. His use of targeted empathy and understanding, combined with the special attention he paid to their region, helped voters in rural areas feel heard. The Trump campaign sought out broken communities in a decaying society where jobs are impossible to come by and farmland is disappearing quickly, using the nostalgia of a past blue-collar community as a political tool. Many of the problems the Trump campaign identified with are real, and the exploitation of the hurt in rural communities needs serious thought and action from government, but also individuals and community leaders.
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National politics are not the only concern. Communities are left with fewer options for county commissioners and the local school board without the next generation of young business leaders and agriculturists in rural America. The growing issues in rural America struggle to be solved with one solution, or one visit with promises from a politician, but seek a national conversation to invigorate rural areas to solve the problems surrounding the communities. The economy has become dominated by a relatively small number of companies across the national economic landscape America’s backbone was built on agriculture, with towns built around farms. The lack of money circulating through the small farms economy has been replaced by larger corporate farms decreasing the number of decent paying jobs while increasing the amount of money people spend at larger corporate owned stores. Smaller towns do not see money recirculated in the community as it travels to cities for cheap imported goods and payments on the debt with high interest. To recirculate money and include small towns, a focus could be made on systems within both urban and rural communities. The food system in the United States invests in local and sustainable food with a more diverse food system socially desirable. Purchasing local food and investing in local food systems should be seen as an economic investment for rural areas. Focusing on the small towns that need an economic boost more than any other area. Investing in small farmers and young farmer’s rural economies so they can thrive while benefiting other larger areas will be helpful to the overarching community. Agriculturalists and farmers see investment in their community as an investment in their business.
The investment in small towns can reach a broader range than just food. Grant programs and diversified loan programs for young people who want to start farming could transform a small town Main Street storefront into a contemporary store that produces products for statewide farmer’s markets or land used as a source for growing products for industries like craft beer. An investment in high-speed internet could also make an impact on rural areas. Broadband has become as essential as running water and electricity to improve the daily lives and a standard of living equal to urban and suburban areas of the country. Several rural Americans do not have access to broadband internet in their homes, farms, and businesses. Communities of earlier generations in the past thrived on the proximity to infrastructures like roads, railways, airports, and rivers to transport goods. In the present, access to reliable, affordable high-speed internet is a tool to promote a better economy in small towns. The investment in broadband internet access for rural communities could expand online food services to include locally sourced products in their meal delivery kits.
Investing in the communities of young farmers is investing in young farmers as well. Institutions that include families, schools, churches, local civic groups, charities, nonprofits, unions, local libraries, and even junior colleges can play a significant role in breathing life back into small towns. An investment in these institutions agriculture and community will reinforce economic strength in rural towns. Those who are disconnected from rural communities by never living there or left their small towns feeling the place no longer deserves their attention can help to elevate these places in the political conversation. Rural areas have been left out of the conversation unless their voting numbers are needed to win a national election. Listening to targeted empathy and gestures of reaching out to the secluded part of America, using these out of the way places as a ploy and a way to ultimately get their vote and then simply be walked away from shows that neither party truly connected with or represents rural America, and ultimately do not care about elevating the communities to the greater conversation. Neither party truly connecting or representing with rural America or elevating the communities to the greater conversation.
Rural communities can be one of the few places where everyone is your neighbor, places with shops and diners where you stand out if you’re not a familiar face, where the American dream still lives and is held tightly by everyone who lives there. Main Street has come to symbolize a place close to the people, people with pretenses and honest aspirations. It uses images of place and time symbolizing their past. There are several thousand small towns in the United States with many Main Streets at the heart of them. Communities that succeed in progressive change are connected to data, outside resources, engaged residents, global trends, and other communities. Elevating small towns into political conversations, including them in conversations to seek progressive change and help preserve these communities is a start to bring back thriving life in rural communities and the living image of small-town Main Street.
- Evan. “Monocultures in America: A System That Needs More Diversity.” Debating Science, blogs.umass.edu/natsci397a-eross/monocultures-in-america-a-system-that-needs-more-diversity/.
- Ewg. “EWG's Farm Subsidy Database.” EWG Farm Subsidy Database || What Are Farm Subsidy Payments?, farm.ewg.org/subsidyprimer.php.
- Orvell, Miles. The Death and Life of Main Street: Small Towns in American Memory, Space, and Community. The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
- Shearer, Chad. “The Small Town-Big City Split That Elected Donald Trump.” Brookings, Brookings, 14 Nov. 2016, www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2016/11/11/the-small-town-big-city-split-that-elected-donald-trump/.
- The Midwest Farm Crisis of the 1980s, eightiesclub.tripod.com/id395.htm.
- Wuthnow, Robert. Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future. Princeton University Press, 2015.
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