Changes in rural America

RURAL America has always tugged at writers, artists, and anyone else seeking relief from the pace and pollution of the country's urban centers. Now that vast expanse - embracing almost a third of the population of the United States and two-thirds of its land - is starting to draw the attention of policymakers, too. Rural development, both its absence and its sometimes disturbing presence, has become the subject of legislative efforts, at both the state and federal levels, and of news reports. The picture we get of America's hinterlands is rich in contrasts.

Rural counties once safely outside the commuting reach of cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, or Boston are finding urban spillover lapping at their doorsteps. Once-remote hamlets are starting to look like proto-suburbs. Well-heeled migrants want the quiet setting, the intimacy with nature - but they also want the good job back in the city. Result? Commutes that would once have been thought crazy, and yet more changes in the ever-evolving pattern of American family life.

Land prices in these rural boom areas are climbing, of course, and longtime residents are realizing that their children may have difficulty buying into their own hometowns.

Something quite different is happening in the country's midsection. Towns throughout the rural Midwest have lost people to a depressed farm economy and jobs in larger communities. There the question is how to draw new residents. Rolfe, Iowa, with 700 inhabitants, is offering newcomers free building lots. Arkansas plans to pour millions into revitalizing depressed rural counties.

Some people in hard-hit areas are finding ways to use the resources at hand to create opportunity. A group of farmers in Minnesota, for instance, forms a co-op to process their own corn into starch, oil, even ethanol. Some Tennesseans find that vineyards thrive in their poor section of the state.

Rural people have always drawn on ingenuity. Today's demographic and economic changes will put the resourcefulness of these Americans - some 60 million-strong - to the test.

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