John Phipps: Rural America Needs Triage

Customer Support 06/08/19
Labor immobility is an issue John Phipps brought up, and one that could impact rural communities moving forward ( Farm Journal )

My comments on labor immobility brought this response from Gregory Switek in Ironwood, Michigan:

“One factor that I believe you missed is that people do not move for a better paying job [because] they cannot afford to do so.  Moving is an expensive undertaking both economically and emotionally. 

 This is something that is not unique to rural farming communities.  Small towns and cities across the country which were built on a single business, one company, or a government installation experience this.  My city of Ironwood MI was a mining town.  The last mine closed over 50 years ago.  The State of Michigan operated a prison near us.  It closed at the end of last year.  There are empty and abandoned houses throughout the city a number of which are being razed each year through grants.”

These are great points. Send me an address. The single big employer situation also highlights the difficulty making small towns economically resilient, and oddly enough the terrible risk of tariff-driven trade policy. Tariffs don’t affect the entire economy equally, but specific businesses. Just one word changed on a tariff list could mean the difference between a small manufacturing plant keeping or losing their export market. If your widget uses imported parts, the hometown could lose big while other places thrive.

There is a critical mass type of problem, where employment sources are numerous and varied enough for a town to survive these types of business shocks. For that reason, and several others I’ll outline in the future, I am not sure we can revitalize all or even most of rural America in the way we seem to envision its past.

Rural America needs triage – an intense effort to save those communities that are most likely to survive for decades. The obvious problem is all of us think our community is one of those, which is impossible. Making a stronger safety net for all Americans could help employers find workers and minimize the disruption changing jobs now causes. Job losses will continue to be pinpointed tragedies, not just a tenth percent across all communities. Spreading public resources thinly over all rural towns will not work or help people build a viable future elsewhere.

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