Great Plains' New Frontier

Innovative moves can halt Middle America's decline

Step by slow step, some two-thirds of the vast Great Plains lands of the United States have been technically reclassified as frontier land, according to recent US Census data. That means fewer than six people per square mile.

This is just one of the more startling statistics presented in a Monitor series about the decline of the Plains that concludes today:

1. In 1950, Smith County, Kansas, had 50 percent more population than Clark County, Nevada (home of Las Vegas). Today, it has just 5.1 people per square mile - on par with Namibia;

2. The middle of America is expected to become the poorest part of America in the not too distant future;

3. The population of Adams County, North Dakota (2,600) has an average income $600 below the median of the country's poorest state;

4. The average resident of the Great Plains is 10 years older than the average American.

Severe economic losses in the Mayberrys of the hinterlands have shuttered schools and businesses, and challenged the resourcefulness so innate to the people of the Plains. And as megafarms eat up family farms, many communities are diminished.

Finding solutions isn't easy. But like the 19th-century families who settled there with a can-do spirit, the pioneers of today are not those who flee the region but those who stay put and work to renew their communities.

The federal and state governments long have recognized their role in helping the Plains and other rural areas to access basic needs and connect to a wider world.

But that shouldn't just mean piling on billions more in federal subsidies to farmers (and mainly big farms, too). Some money now given to farmers should instead be directed to nonfarm rural development.

Supporting innovation

To further connect these communities and help them feel less isolated will require innovation. The best way to do that is by broadband Internet, which can allow such things as remote education. Some rural areas are arranging ambulance services to bring healthcare more quickly. These help rebuild a sense of community.

Such steps require more money, especially the speedier Web connections. Unfortunately, the proposed Bush budget calls for a $300 million cut in federal grants to help ramp up the Internet in rural areas.

Savings in consolidation

Reducing costs is the normal response in many of these failing communities. In Adams County, North Dakota, police protection costs about the same today as it did 20 years ago - a result of combining the police force with the county sheriff's office.

Consolidating schools across several counties also saves money. Unfortunately, President Bush proposes cutting a $300 million federal grant program.

In general, the Plains states, and Congress, should reexamine many government programs to better ensure that rural needs are being met. Rural hospitals receive less money for Medicare patients than urban ones, for instance. And the high costs of federally mandated environmental cleanup obviously cannot be borne by as many people in rural areas.

Another idea gaining traction is creating small, "boutique" farms that can sell food in specialized niche markets. In fact, a year ago, a few dozen farmers in Pender, Neb., received a federal grant to help their co-op sell organic meat to consumers. Again, though, Bush's proposed budget for 2004 cuts this grant from $40 million to $2 million.

Even rural air service subsidies to some 92 small cities are being been cut - from $113 million to a proposed $50 million. Political clout in Washington, it seems, has waned, along with a declining population.

Moral fibers, woven

People of the Plains who've made the courageous decision to keep a stake in the ground in their area, despite a poor economy and a decreasing population, need to band together to address their problems more regionally.

In many places, local energy, pride, and resourcefulness have created models for other communities to follow.

But the Plains still need a boost to to carry them through, as they experiment with those models and work to help reinvent a unique rural region.

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