Professor/pol Jon Lauck makes the New York Post to comment on the decline of rural communities in South Dakota:
"This is not a mysterious process," says Jon Lauck, who has a Ph.D. in the history of South Dakota and serves as a top adviser to US Sen. John Thune, himself from the town of Murdo (pop: 488). "As technology got better and you could farm 15,000 acres of land or more, you lose people. And then the younger people move to Minneapolis or Denver for jobs. But it's sad. It's sad every time a small farm closes" [Maureen Callahan, "Great Wide Open," New York Post, 2011.10.08].
Callahan's article smells of condescension and superficiality: for example, she deems Rapid City "ridiculously clean" and "almost entirely white." Hmm... did she go anywhere other than the airport before heading out to find a few colorful rural characters to reinforce her readers' big-city stereotypes of South Dakotans?
I will certainly agree that towns like Cottonwood, McLaughlin, and Herreid face hard prospects of regaining any population and business activity. What can be done?
- Perhaps the state should buy up all 80 of the small towns that are on the U.S. Postal Service's post office closure list and offer them for sale to high-rolling holyrollers. Encourage churches from around the world to build housing projects, revival centers, and pastoral retreats here far away from the earthly temptations of the big city. The only condition: no more than ten percent of each town can be placed under the churches' tax-exempt status.
- Combine the Homestead Act with the Jubilee: Declare these small towns debt-free zones where anyone with huge debt can come set up a homestead and avoid bill collectors. Conditions: homesteaders have to build a new house or renovate an existing structure to code and work enough to generate income equal to at least 200% of the poverty level for their household each year. Do that, and the Attorney General will make sure no debt collectors enter South Dakota to harass you about your past debts. Welcome to the New World!
- Perhaps we acknowledge the inevitable and euthanize those 80 towns. Acknowledge that a town that can't support a grocery store, a school, and a clinic (feel free to add your own list of necessities) cannot be a functioning, healthy community. Buy out the residents, relocate them to surviving towns, and concentrate the state's limited wealth in sustaining and growing the larger communities.
Those are just opening possibilities. I welcome your further prescriptions for Cottonwood et al. Your two big questions for coffee break today: (1) Can we save the smallest enclaves of rural South Dakota, and (2) should we?
p.s.: Callahan includes in her list of destroyers of rural communities the Interstate Highway System, "or the 'super-slab' as it's called here." Maybe I'm out of the loop, but I've never heard a South Dakotan call I-29 or I-90 by that name. Have you?
Update 16:26 MDT: Bernie Hunhoff offers his observations on substandard out-of-state coverage of rural South Dakota and points to some vital progress in improving life on our rural reservations.