RURAL COMMUNITIES in the U.S. wrestle with many of the same problems facing the rest of the country—persistent unemployment, access to quality health care, air and water degradation, a broken immigration policy. Other issues—such as supporting sustainable farming practices and drawing young people into agriculture, lack of broadband access, and the challenges of small-town economic development—are more unique to rural life.
Even though the 46.2 million people living in rural U.S. counties constitute only 15 percent of the country’s total population (spread across 72 percent of the nation’s land area), we are all connected—urban, suburban, and rural—by foodways, waterways, wilderness areas, and our national politics. As one Midwest-based organizer put it, “many progressives fundamentally don’t understand rural America—they don’t even know why they should care about it. You can’t understand the power of the tea party without understanding rural America. It is the key to the House of Representatives, and progressives will be hamstrung until they can make inroads in a few key congressional districts.”
But that organizer and others also draw power and hope from the deep history of populism in the rural Midwest and parts of the South, and the endurance of community-oriented values that aren’t just “heartland” clichés.
While many young people are itching to leave rural areas and small towns—anxious to find better jobs, educational opportunities, or city culture—others have always stayed put or returned after time away. And some “city cousins” move to rural America, enjoying the opportunity to work on issues they care about (with the bonus of a brilliant night sky). Here are four stories of young people investing in rural communities in the Midwest. —The Editors
“It makes a difference in the lives of people.”
Rae O’Leary, 29, is a respiratory therapist and nurse on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in north-central South Dakota. The reservation straddles two counties, the fourth- and 11th-poorest in the nation. O’Leary works for Missouri Breaks Industries Research Inc. in Eagle Butte, the reservation’s hub with a population of about 1,300. She lives 20 miles out, on a ranch with her husband and two young children. O’Leary is a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa; her husband is a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and their children are enrolled in that tribe.
“When I define how rural we are, I tell people our nearest Wal-Mart is two hours away. That’s my point of reference for city folk.