Half Past the Month

May 13, 2022

Paradise Lost (but Sustained)

RAISED IN RURAL AMERICA, I admit to romantic views of small-town life. And later as a young journalist I wandered around the Midwest passing through the iconic courthouse squares, stopping in the once ubiquitous downtown cafe with the “Eats” sign to sample the coconut cream pie and read the hometown paper. Ah, and the pool halls that served beer in iced mugs . . .

I know, I know, those days are gone. Still, it is important to remember that those were places, circa 1940-1970, from which came the men and women who won our wars, molded our arts and culture and filled the executives suites of perhaps the greatest job-creating engine in history.

I argue that America’s accomplishments can be credited not to big-shots in cities but to small-town people with big dreams. Is it important that Nancy Pelosi is from Baltimore, Joe Biden is from Scranton and Ronald Reagan is from Tampico?

I think so.

Anyway, there’s something about a distant horizon that spurs achievement. I read some years ago that the U.S. Navy had commissioned a study finding that its best combat officers came from small towns in the Great Plains. The man who founded the New Yorker magazine, the publication that defines urban sophistication, is from a town of 265. And don’t make me recite the hometowns of our first astronauts or I’ll make you spell Wapakoneta. Hollywood still remembers a rebel from Fairmount, and Spring Wells Township, Michigan, may no longer exist but the Ford Motor Company does.

So it has been painful these last three decades to have watched as Indiana towns waned. It seemed that crack houses got more sympathetic attention. I have asked in vain in columns over the years why Hoosier politicians, who must pass through these sad towns on their get-me-reelected travels, rarely speak up for this forlorn, vanishing constituency.

Now they have spoken, but you might wish they hadn’t. Gov. Eric Holcomb addressed the issue yesterday and it sounded disturbingly like what Reagan called the most terrifying words in the English language: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Holcomb, a city boy from 3,000-student Pike High School in Indianapolis, wearing what he might imagine was outstate mufti, was interviewed by the staff of something called the Indiana University Center for Rural Engagement. He offered this:

“As we invest in enhancing quality of place and space through programs like READI (Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative), we’re empowering our rural regions to become even more magnetic places to call home, visit, move, build a business or raise a family.”

Trying to save you from acronym overload, I followed the governor’s “empowering,” “acceleration,” “development” and “initiative” to the center’s web site in search of something that would actually restore my beloved small towns.

There were catchwords galore: sustainable growth, coalition building, asset mapping, gap analysis, reimagined relationships, pathways to partnerships and of course equity in resources and staffing.

But I was looking for history-reversing incentives that private investors would find “magnetic,” something to encourage small shops, family farms, hometown banks and, yes, coconut cream pies. Missing were the classic economic remedies of removing taxes and regulations and generally getting government not just out of the way but over-the-horizon out of the way.

My impression instead was that Indiana University and the governor are working a racket. They have figured out a way to cash in on Indiana’s love for hometowns by dispatching heavily credentialed agents to the four corners of the state to show the locals how it’s done — a tweak here, a research grant there, and some tax increment financing over here, and pretty soon “Main Street” would be humming again.

Too late. There are no “locals” left, no authentically viable main streets. There’s no there there. The band instruments will never arrive.

Only 17 percent of so-called rurals are directly or indirectly employed in traditional agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, says the American Community Survey. The rest are ex-urbanites, people with big-city jobs who like the idea of living in the country — lawyers, architects and the like.

This explains why rural incomes are 95 percent as high as urban ones, with purchasing power possibly higher if you consider housing and other costs.

Wait, these are the people the government is here to help? They resemble nobody more than Eric Holcomb and his academic friends at Indiana University, or at least after they have drawn their last government check and settled into retirement on a scenic Indiana hillside.

Not a bad plan, really, but they left out the coconut cream pie. — tcl


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