Pubdate: Sun,  8 Dec 2002
Source: Lexington Herald-Leader (KY)
Copyright: 2002 Lexington Herald-Leader
Author: Timothy Egan, New York Times News Service


Loup County, Neb., the poorest county in the United States, is down to 712 
people -- a third of the population it had nearly a century ago. In Loup 
County, what rides on the unrelenting winds are symptoms of despair that 
have taken hold there and across a large swath of rural America.

Experts who have studied a generations-old downward spiral in the 
countryside say decades of economic decline have produced a culture of 
dependency, with empty counties hooked on farm subsidies. And just as in 
the cities, the hollowed-out economy has led to a frightening rise in crime 
and drug abuse.

But unlike the cities' troubles, which generated a national debate about 
causes and solutions, the rural collapse has been largely silent, perhaps 
because it happened so slowly.

Crime, fueled by a methamphetamine epidemic that has turned fertilizer into 
a drug lab component and given some sparsely populated counties higher 
murder rates than New York City, has so strained small-town police budgets 
that many are begging the federal government for help.

The rate of serious crime in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah is as much 
as 50 percent higher than in New York state, the FBI reported in October.

Towns of 10,000 and 25,000 people are now the most likely places to 
experience a bank robbery.

Drug-related homicides fell by 50 percent in urban areas, but they tripled 
over the last decade in the countryside.

The 2000 census found that the percentage of people living below the 
poverty level is nearly 30 percent higher in rural areas than it is in 
cities. Of the 25 poorest counties in the nation, five are in Nebraska, 
five are in Texas and four are in South Dakota, the Commerce Department found.
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