[Homestead] On a rural state

Mark Rousseau markrousseau at yahoo.com
Wed Feb 9 09:16:02 EST 2005

 From today's NY Times editorial section:

          February 9, 2005


    Keeping Iowa's Young Folks at Home After They've Seen Minnesota


Lately the Iowa Legislature has been trying to find a way to solve a 
basic problem: how to keep young people from leaving the state. Right 
now, Iowa's "brain drain" is second only to North Dakota's. The 
Legislature is toying with a simple idea, getting rid of state income 
tax for everyone under 30. This proposal was front-page news in 
California, where most of Iowa moved in the 1960's.

Let me translate the economics of this plan. The State Legislature 
proposes to offer every young tax-paying Iowan a large delivery pizza - 
or its cash equivalent, about $12 - every week of the year. But smart 
young Iowans know this is only an average figure. The more you earn, the 
more state income tax you save.

If ever there were an incentive to earn your first hundred million by 
the time you're 30, this would be it. Never mind that South Dakota, 
right next door, charges no income tax no matter how old you are.

Of course, there are serious questions about financing this tax break, 
which could cost as much as $200 million a year. The best bet would be 
to require young people to spend their dole on the Iowa Lottery.

Iowans are resolutely practical about such proposals. One state 
legislator, quoted in The Minneapolis Star Tribune, said: "Let's face 
it. Des Moines will never be Minneapolis." He might have added that 
Council Bluffs would never be Kansas City. Another Iowan, when asked 
what the state needed to keep its young people, said, "An ocean would 
help." This is the kind of big thinking Iowa has always been famous for.

But $600, the average yearly state income tax for Iowan 20-somethings, 
is not enough to undo decades of social erosion. The problems Iowa faces 
are the very solutions it chose two and three generations ago. The 
state's demographic dilemma wasn't caused by bad weather or high income 
taxes or the lack of a body of water larger than Rathbun Lake - an Army 
Corps of Engineers reservoir sometimes known as "Iowa's ocean." It was 
caused by the state's wholehearted, uncritical embrace of industrial 
agriculture, which has depopulated the countryside, destroyed the 
economic and social texture of small towns, and made certain that 
ordinary Iowans are defenseless against the pollution of factory farming.

These days, all the entry-level jobs in agriculture - the state's 
biggest industry - happen to be down at the local slaughterhouse, and 
most of those jobs were filled by the governor's incentive, a few years 
ago, to bring 100,000 immigrant workers into the state.

Business leaders all across Iowa have been racking their brains to think 
of ways to spur economic development. But nearly every idea leaves 
industrial agriculture intact. That means a few families living amid 
vast tracts of genetically modified soybeans and corn, with here and 
there a hog confinement site or a cattle feedlot to break the monotony.

People love to blame the death of America's small towns on the coming of 
Wal-Mart, but in Iowa, Wal-Mart is just a parasite preying on the 
remains of a way of life that ended years ago. Every farming crisis - 
they seem to come at least once a decade - has shaken a few more farmers 
out of the business, consolidating land holdings and decreasing the 
rural population that actually depends on small towns to do business in. 
The complex connection between town and country that characterized the 
state when I lived there has long since been broken.

There is not enough life in the small towns of Iowa to keep a young 
person, and there is no opportunity on the land. The state faces an 
excruciating paradox. It can foster economic development of a kind that 
devours farmland - the sort of thing that is happening around Des 
Moines. Or it can try to reimagine the nature of farming, with certain 
opposition from farmers themselves and without any help from the federal 
government, which has fostered industrial agriculture for decades.

I used to joke that Iowa's two leading crops were rural poverty and 
crystal meth. But it's not a joke. The fact is that Iowa is a beautiful 
state. Minneapolis isn't that far away. Iowa would be a great place to 
live, if only the air and the water weren't polluted and you could be 
sure you wouldn't find yourself living next to 10,000 sows in a hog 
prison. There was a time, well within my dad's memory, when Iowa's 
agriculture was diversified and when the towns were rich in a culture of 
their own devising.

I grew up in the latter days of such a town, and I find it hard to 
imagine a better place to have been a kid.

My family moved away from Iowa in 1966, for reasons that had to do with 
my mother's health and not with economics or even the decline in 
pheasant hunting. I'd like to say I stared out the rear window as we 
pulled out of town, watching the state of my boyhood recede, but I 
didn't. We were going to California, which trumps Minneapolis. I was 
lucky to leave before I knew I would need to.

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