Challenges facing a changing rural America


ITHACA, N.Y. -- The 2000 census showed that 56 million people live in rural America, accounting for about 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Rural America is going through substantial change. A new book, Challenges for Rural America in the 21st Century, examines rural people and communities and the disadvantages they suffer in quality-of-life measures. Rural people have a higher likelihood of being poor, and their communities are likely to be chronically economically depressed.

Challenges for Rural America in the 21st Century (Pennsylvania State University Press) is co-edited by David L. Brown, Cornell University professor of development sociology, and Louis Swanson, Colorado State University professor of sociology. This book is the third in a series sponsored by the Rural Sociological Society to examine the changing nature of rural America and to provide input toward governmental policy.

Challenges for Rural America focuses attention on rural social change in contemporary American society. The book examines how rural economies and community institutions have been transformed during the last several decades. There is discussion of the vanishing land buffers, as human activities conflict with the environment. Changing national and international policies affecting rural people and communities are discussed.

Brown and Swanson distinguish between agricultural policy and rural policy. They contend that agricultural policies do not typically promote rural development because "agricultural interests have given neither much attention nor [devoted] many resources to the needs of farmers' nonagricultural neighbors, even though their plights are exceedingly important in determining local services and economic viability."

Six of the book's 30 chapters were written by Cornell development sociologists. Angela Gonzales, in a chapter on American Indians, examines the proliferation of gaming as an economic development strategy. She concludes that the gaming benefits are unevenly spread, and it may have unanticipated negative social consequences. Nina Glasgow, in a chapter on rural aging, shows that immediate access for the grown-up children to their elderly parents is lower in rural communities. Hence, elder care is a major challenge facing rural America.

Writing about rural community development, Thomas Lyson and Baylor University's Charles Tolbert, share a vision of community involving small, locally owned enterprises, an economically independent middle class and a high degree of participation in local organizations. They contend that local communities with these attributes are better able to attain collective goals and improve their quality of life. Cornell's Mildred Warner focuses on how governmental restructuring has affected rural communities. She indicates that rural communities will need to find new roles within the decentralized, deregulated and privatized intergovernmental system, if these communities want to succeed.

The policy section includes two chapters by Cornell sociologists. Thomas Hirschl and the University of Kentucky's Julie Zimmerman discuss whether rural people have been disadvantaged by welfare reform. They indicate that many attributes of rural communities constrain the transition from welfare to work so rural poor persons are at a high risk of disadvantage in the new welfare policy environment. However, they report that there is so much variability in administrative practice between states that a clear rural disadvantage is difficult to establish. Philip McMichael, chair of Cornell's Department of Development Sociology, considers how globalization has affected domestic agriculture. He indicates that "over the past two decades, free trade has become a mantra of policy makers in both major U.S. political parties." He notes that in this new agricultural order domestic farm production is being replaced by global production in a system organized by transnational food companies. McMichael writes: "Such global sourcing increasingly underwrites a system of profiteering in food products."


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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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