Pubdate: Sun, 08 Dec 2002
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2002 The New York Times Company
Author: Timothy Egan


LOUP COUNTY, Neb., the poorest county in the nation, is down to 712 people 
- - a third of the population it had nearly a century ago. A four-bedroom 
house goes for $30,000. But building a life is much harder. 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.

It could be Chemung County in upstate New York, which lost people and jobs 
even in the boom of the 90's. Or Bighorn County, Wyo., where some high 
school seniors say their only choices are to move out of town or take up 
with people cooking methamphetamine in a rusty sink. Or Dalhart, Tex., a 
Panhandle town of 7,000 people where the murder rate last year was more 
than twice the national average.

Around the country, rural ghettos are unravelling in the same way that 
inner cities did in the 1960's and 70's, according to the officials and 
experts who have tried to make sense of a generations-old downward spiral 
in the countryside. In this view, decades of economic decline have produced 
a culture of dependency, with empty counties hooked on farm subsidies just 
as welfare mothers were said to be tied to their monthly checks. 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 the state of New York, the F.B.I. 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.

"We have serious drug crime in places that never used to have it," said 
Allen Curtis, executive director of the Nebraska Crime Commission.

Poverty was held in place somewhat by the boom of the 1990's. Still, 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, 5 are in Nebraska, 5 are in Texas 
and 4 are in South Dakota, the Commerce Department found. In Loup County, 
the dead center of Nebraska, per capita personal income is $6,606 per year, 
just 22 percent of the national average, according to a listing compiled by 
the Commerce Department.

Equally telling is a growing wage gap that finds people who work in rural 
areas making just 70 percent of the average salaries of workers in urban 
areas. The cost of living, of course, is much lower outside the big cities. 
But workers in rural areas are 60 percent more likely to earn minimum wage 
than urban wage-earners.

No wonder then that the exodus from large parts of rural America is 
continuing, extending far beyond the long-suffering Great Plains. While the 
nation as a whole grew by 13 percent in the 2000 census, many counties in 
upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and three Southern 
states, for example, lost 9 percent or more of their population during the 

THE pastoral farms of cider presses and pumpkin patches still exist, of 
course, but the ones that prosper are at suburban edges, or they are places 
with sublime scenery or an energetic college. Bonner County, Idaho, for 
example, grew by 38 percent in the last decade, hooking its fate to outdoor 
amenities and second homes for early-retiring baby boomers.

Though the politicians who inveighed against moral and economic decline in 
the big cities have yet to weigh in on rural breakdown, plenty of voices 
are sounding alarms from this Other America.

Some say that entrepreneurship has been stifled by central government 
subsidies to agribusiness, while the real problems of rural America - which 
have little to do with farm policy - have been ignored.

"The slide is not inevitable," said Chuck Hassebrook, director of the 
Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., a nonprofit group that studies 
trends in rural areas. "We give a lot of tax breaks and direct payments to 
big agriculture companies that don't do much for the local economy, but 
rarely do we give anything to the little guy trying to start a business and 
stay in town."

In Nebraska, nearly 70 percent of all farmers rely on government largess to 
stay in business. Yet the biggest economic collapse is happening in 
counties most tied to agriculture - in spite of the subsidies.

Unaffected by the downward trends are cheap labs used to make 
methamphetamine, a synthetic form of speed that the White House calls the 
fastest-growing drug threat in America.

Nationwide, meth use has nearly tripled since 1994, and there are now far 
more regular users of meth than crack, according to the annual survey of 
drug use done for the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In Wyoming, the least populated state, officials estimate that 1 out of 
every 100 people needs treatment for meth addiction. Users of meth tend to 
be white and rural. There were 300 times more seizures of meth labs in Iowa 
in 1999, for example, than in New York and New Jersey combined, the Drug 
Enforcement Agency found.

Like crack, meth drives up all the other problems in these communities. 
Meth users tend to be erratic, violent and in some cases, borderline 
psychotic - especially when on a sleepless binge or "tweaking" episode. 
Small-fry dealers steal and war among one another. Users abandon families, 
lose jobs and batter spouses and loved ones.

"Meth seems to be everywhere in Nebraska right now," Mr. Curtis of the 
Nebraska Crime Commission said. "It's mostly Beavis and Butthead labs, with 
poor white kids making meth out of their cars."

WHETHER people would be less prone to using meth if there were more 
good-paying jobs in rural areas is an echo of an old question - the one 
posed about crack and heroin use in gutted inner cities. But at least 
during the decline-of-cities phase, the topic was vigorously debated.

By contrast, the problems of rural America were not discussed much in the 
recent national election, even in South Dakota and Missouri, which had 
close Senate races.

Instead, the issue was farm price supports. In South Dakota, which received 
$3.2 billion in farm subsidies over the last five years and stands to gain 
an even larger amount in the coming decade, candidates of both parties 
swore to uphold the status quo. Supporters of subsidies say they keep 
entire counties from going under and ensure a cheap and abundant food supply.

But opponents say that the biggest checks go to large corporate farms and 
do little to stem rural decline. The farm bill signed in May by President 
Bush - and backed by both parties - will, over the next 10 years, 
distribute two-thirds of $125 billion in payments to the top 10 percent of 
farms, according to an analysis done by the Environmental Working Group, a 
conservation group.

These payments go to farm businesses that cannot make money in the global 
market without government help, or they are funneled to people who agree to 
take certain crops out of production.

But farmers who are just getting by tend to be out of the subsidy loop. 
About 1.2 million of the nation's 2 million farms do less than $10,000 a 
year in annual sales, the Agriculture Department reports.

In any case, with barely 1 percent of Americans living on farms, most rural 
jobs are nonagricultural. About 25 percent of those jobs pay wages below 
the poverty level for a family of four, said Representative Eva Clayton, a 
Democrat of South Carolina who is retiring this year, and who served as 
chairwoman of the Congressional Rural Caucus.

Or, she said, more often the rural wage-earner makes a long commute to a 
minimum-wage job in the nearest regional hub city.

There are some bright spots on the open map. In some regional hubs, like 
Fargo, N.D., wages and jobs have increased. Across the Midwest, a number of 
communities have attracted enough immigrants to show population growth. But 
these immigrants come to work at meatpacking plants or corporate hog farms. 
And recent studies have shown those jobs tend to drive out other people who 
might normally stay in an area for its quality of life.

Representative Tom Osborne, Republican of Nebraska, has been trying to get 
small "action" grants - somewhat similar to the ones the big cities used to 
go after - as a way to jump-start businesses in western Nebraska.

In desperation, other rural politicians are looking to an earlier model.

TWO major homestead acts were largely responsible for people moving to some 
of least populated areas to begin with. Now comes the New Homestead 
Economic Opportunity Act, introduced by Senators Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat 
of North Dakota, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska. The bill would 
forgive student loans and provide tax credit for home purchasers in 
depressed rural areas and small towns.

History has provided us a model to help the communities that are hurting in 
the heartland, Senator Dorgan said.

But history, at least since the end of the last homestead act around 1920, 
has also shown that people who live in depressed rural America have been 
going only one way - out.
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D