Some comparisons with the Great Depression

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IS rural America in a depression? The word is bandied about a lot these days. ``It's an agricultural depression,'' says Kingman, Kan., farmer Clarence Clossen.

``My father was in better shape in the mid-'30s than most farmers are now,'' adds James Johnston Sr., a Grafton, N.D., farmer. ``The later '30s, at least.''

But unlike the '30s, not everyone is in trouble, says Rita Light, waiting on late-night customers at a convenience store here in Rockwell City, Iowa.

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``You're either doing great -- or you're not going to make it,'' she says. She and her husband are making it, she adds, but only because her store job and her husband's truck-driving supplement the money they make raising hogs.

In fact, some historians and economists believe the rural situation of the 1980s closely resembles the farm depression of the 1920s. Then, as now, urban America was booming. Bank failures were concentrated in the rural areas. The farm economy was coming off a boom.

In some ways, today's situation is better than it was in the '20s. Rural America is now less dependent on natural-resource employment. Also, farm subsidies that did not exist 60 years ago have slowed the fall of commodity prices during a period of stiff competition in world markets.

In other ways, today's situation is worse. The rate of decline in farmland values has actually been faster now than in the 1920s.

``What we're talking about is a very run-of-the-mill depression,'' says Neil Harl, an agricultural economist. The result: an increasing split between languishing rural communities and booming cities just at a time when it appeared that rural standards of living were beginning to catch up.

``They don't have urban sprawl up there'' in Atlanta, complains south Georgia farmer Terrell Hudson. ``They've got whatever's faster than urban sprawl.''

The split between haves and have-nots is played out in rural areas, too. While the mining town of Babbitt, Minn., is suffering badly, the only vacant storefront in the nearby town of Virginia is a building that burned down. In fact, says University of Missouri sociologist Rex Campbell, the contact with thriving regions -- either in person or through television -- makes it harder on families and towns that have felt the full impact of the rural downturn.

``A couple of my neighbors are working,'' says Bill Kauppinen, an unemployed miner in Iron, Minn. ``They just seem immune to [the downturn]. And that's what hurts.''

``We're probably in a high-class depression,'' sums up a North Dakota farmer, Monty Burke, relating the financial trouble of one of his farmhands. ``He's in a heap of hurt. And yet, by golly, he drives a pretty new pickup.''

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