Rural Americans Fear the One Thing That Could Save Them

Tucker Carlson took a lot of heat when he devoted a segment of his show to asking the question, “How, precisely, is diversity our strength?” It wasn’t the first time, nor will it be the last, that he demonstrated why he is the favorite cable television host of white supremacists in this country.

But in a way, Thomas Friedman answered Carlson’s question when he traveled recently to Willmar, Minnesota and wrote about what he learned. Located in the center of the state, the population of Willmar is 21,000. Here is how it has changed since Marv Calvin was elected mayor.

“We had 1,200 to 1,600 Somalis when I started as mayor in 2014 and now we have 3,500 to 3,800,” said Calvin. “We also have 800 Karen people from Burma.” Add to that over 4,000 Latinos and you have a town of 21,000 that had been virtually all white and Christian its entire existence become nearly half new immigrants in the blink of two decades.

You might assume that changes of that magnitude would create a bit of a crisis. To some extent, that’s true. But Friedman set out to learn how the people of Willmar handled the change.

The cliché about America today is that we’re a country divided between two coasts — two coasts that are liberalizing, pluralizing, globalizing and modernizing. And in between is “flyover America,” where everyone voted for Donald Trump, is suffering from addictions and is waiting for the 1950s to return.

That’s not what I’ve found. America is actually a checkerboard of towns and cities — some rising from the bottom up and others collapsing from the top down, ravaged by opioids, high unemployment among less-educated white males and a soaring suicide rate. I’ve been trying to understand why some communities rise and others fall — and so many of the answers can be found in Willmar.

The answers to three questions in particular make all the difference: 1) Is your town hungry for workers to fill open jobs? 2) Can your town embrace the new immigrants ready to do those jobs, immigrants who may come not just from Latin America, but also from nonwhite and non-Christian nations of Africa or Asia? And 3) Does your town have a critical mass of “leaders without authority”?

When Friedman refers to “leaders without authority,” he’s talking about “business leaders, educators, philanthropists and social entrepreneurs ready to lead their community toward inclusion and problem-solving.” When it comes to Willmar, the answer to all three of those questions is “yes.” You’ll find some uplifting examples of that in Friedman’s piece. The results of those efforts were captured with this wonderful anecdote.

When I checked Yelp for the best restaurant to eat lunch while I was in Willmar, No. 1 was the Somali Star and No. 2 was Azteca Mexican Restaurant.

Everything isn’t perfect in Willmar and the town still faces many challenges, but the story Friedman tells is the same one James Fallows found three years ago in his travels through Kansas.

Every single person we’ve met here — Anglo and Latino, African and Burmese and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, male and female, well-educated and barely literate, working three jobs and retired and still in school—of all these people, we’ve asked the same questions. Namely: how has Kansas handled this shift in demography? And how does it sound, in this politically and culturally conservative part of the country, to hear the national discussion about “building a wall,” about making America “a real country again,” of the presumptive Republican nominee saying even today that Americans are “angry over borders, they’re angry over people coming into the country and taking over, nobody even knows who they are.”

And every single person we have spoken with — Anglo and Latino and other, old and young, native-born and immigrant, and so on down the list — every one of them has said: We need each other! There is work in this community that we all need to do. We can choose to embrace the world, or we can fade and die. And we choose to embrace it. (The unemployment rate in this area, by the way, is under 3 percent, and every business we’ve talked with has “help wanted” notices out.)

Of course, what Friedman found in Willmar and Fallows in Kansas isn’t necessarily the norm in other parts of rural America. Art Cullen, of Iowa’s Storm Lake Times, tells the other side of the story.

The population numbers since 2010 look bad for most rural Iowa counties: Pocahontas, down 7.8%; Sac, down 6.1%; Audubon, down 10%; Cass, down 7.3%; Adams, down 9.5%. A small sampling of isolated rural counties. They may have peaked in population in 1940 or before. The sad news is: Nothing is on the horizon to turn it around.

Cullen relates what he’s heard about those trends from Iowa State University research economist Dave Swenson.

We should get used to that and plan for it, Swenson says. His colleagues in Extension are doing a Shrink Smart program that helps communities transition into maturity. It strikes us as hospice for rural America — give us an IV drip to keep the sewer and water systems in repair, and give us a hospital nearby and a nursing home, and let nature sort of take its course. Not everyone can be saved. Let’s make them comfortable places, as rural Iowa mainly is. Seek stability. Hoping on growth can be futile.

But Cullen shared some of his thoughts about how to turn things around in rural Iowa. They include ideas like working with community colleges to create digital jobs and building on the opportunities in renewable energy. Here’s the closer.

[R]ural communities can be rejuvenated by immigration to replace those youth who don’t see their future in a food processing plant or dairy barn. First, a recognition of the crucial role immigrants play in low-margin industries like agriculture and food processing would be helpful. Second, a system that recognizes reality is overdue. The problem in Sac County is not too many Mexicans, but too few people in general, no matter their skin color.

People who know and understand what is happening in rural communities recognize that it didn’t start with things like trade agreements, but has been developing for decades. At a time when those trends are reaching crisis levels for communities all over this country, we have a president and a Republican Party that are using xenophobia to scare people about an “invasion” of immigrants—the one group that has the potential to mitigate the crisis.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.