Message Area
lblHidCurrentSponsorAdIndex =

  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Modern vs. Vintage Farming

article number 586
article date 08-30-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Dying Small Towns (1970): Why?
by Lynn M. Daft, Economist, Office of the Secretary of Agriculture.

From the 1970 USDA Yearbook.

* * *

Empty Streets.

Store fronts with paint that is faded and peeling. A scattering of frame houses and two- or three-room bungalows.

A small railroad station with doors barred and windows broken. Other buildings standing mute and empty, windows shuttered, doors locked. A stillness in the air, notable for the absence of children’s voices.

These are the visible signs of a bypassed community. They are signs that few of us see. They are rarely evident to the suburbanite who commutes to the job “downtown” or to the interstate highway traveler.

They are up the hollers and down the creeks of Appalachia; they are at the intersections of the dusty side roads of the Southwest; they are scattered across the vast expanse of the Great Plains. They are the truly bypassed places that dot the American landscape.

One should not of course assume that all villages and small towns are bypassed. Size alone is not the determining factor in whether a place prospers or withers. If there is a single lesson of our development history, it is that development is a function of many interrelated factors.

Not all small communities evidence the symptoms of decay and stagnation. Many are vibrant and growing. Evidence for the 1960’s suggests that overall trends in several important indicators—outmigration, growth in nonfarm employment, and personal income, for example—have undergone basic change for the better.

The rate of growth of nonfarm jobs in rural and semirural areas during the period 1962-67, for example, jumped ahead of the rate for metropolitan areas. Though a higher rate is not necessarily the equivalent of a large absolute increase, in some areas the turnaround has been of sufficient scale to result in sizable numbers of new jobs.

Related to the changes in job growth are changing patterns of population movement. In the 1950’s, nearly half of all counties in the Nation lost population, principally through out-migration. Since 1960, the magnitude of this out-movement has diminished.

The annual net out-migration from nonmetropolitan to metropolitan areas fell from 670,000 in the 1950’s to 216,000 in the period 1960-65. Surprisingly, foreign nations now add more people to the metropolitan area growth from migration than do our own rural areas.

Thus, conditions are changing. Some outlying rural areas are visibly benefiting, many others are not. This chapter addresses the condition of those that are not.

Business district of a southern town that once thrived on cotton trade.

The full dimensions of the problem are not well documented. Evidence must be garnered from a variety of sources. There are around 18,000 incorporated towns in this Nation, over half of which had a population of fewer than 1,000 in 1967. A far larger number are unincorporated; the total is estimated at over 50,000.

Of our 3,049 counties, two out of three were outside metropolitan areas and contained no urban places with as many as 10,000 persons in 1960. Over half of these essentially rural or semirural counties experienced a loss in population between 1960 and 1966.

Several recent studies of the subject indicate that population trends are related to both town size and proximity to cities. The larger the town and the nearer it is to a city, the greater its likelihood of population growth. Towns of less than 500 appear particularly vulnerable to decline.

Beyond the loss in population stemming from out-migration, an estimated 300 central and south central counties had fewer births than deaths in 1966, resulting in a “natural decrease” in population. This is an unheard of demographic phenomenon in contemporary American history. For those areas affected by it—and it has been predicted the number will grow to 600 by 1970—this is indeed an alarming trend.

Absence of job opportunities in these areas is yet another indication of the seriousness of the problem. While trends taken for rural areas as a whole are improving, more than 250 rural and semirural counties actually lost more nonfarm jobs than they gained between 1962 and 1967. And many of these are the same counties that are rapidly losing population.

Another 750 counties added fewer than 50 jobs per county, per year. In many cases this does not even compensate for the jobs lost in agriculture, not to mention those being lost in other industries and the excess of new job entrants over retirees.

To appreciate what has happened to these places, it is useful to consider the how and why of their origin. Communities come into being for a variety of reasons. In the more sparsely populated agricultural regions, settlements sprang up around farm supply and marketing facilities.

It has been estimated that nearly three of every four communities in the Nation today originated as a service center for agriculture. Their location was often determined by the existing pattern of transportation linkages.

The early railroad, with its dependence on fuel and water stops every few miles, exerted an important influence. So also did the constraint of transporting products and supplies by horse-drawn wagon. A distance of 20 miles by such conveyance could easily take as long as 4 or 5 hours.

Towns and villages in nonagricultural regions were associated with other forms of economic activity—the mining towns of Appalachia and the Mesabi Range, the logging centers of the Upper Great Lakes and the Northwest, mill towns of New England, the assembly points along barge canals of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Each town contained the rudimentary economic and social institutions: general store, bank, grain elevator, railroad station, church, and school.


At the turn of the century, most social, economic, and political activities occurred within boundaries that were roughly the same. For the most part, the activities were focused on the local community and its adjacent open country. In many respects, these communities were autonomously functioning units, largely independent of their neighbors.

But with time these conditions changed. New, more rapid and more effective means of transportation and communication laid the basis for part of the change. Faster steam driven railway engines with much greater range replaced the wood burners. These, in turn, were replaced by the diesel.

Horse-drawn transportation gave way to the motorized vehicle and all-weather highways. In terms of travel time, the range a person could travel in one hour jumped from 4 or 5 miles at the turn of the century to 50 miles or more at present.

The production process of every major industry, including farming, became more specialized. Coincidentally, the process became more segmented. Fewer factors of production were produced within the firm. The labor input became separated from assembly of the final product by greater and greater distance.

Though this has often been viewed as a replacement of labor with machines, the more important result was the stretching out of the production process and the increasing demand for specialized labor at all the stages of production.

Increased tilling capacity associated with replacing a mule drawn plow with one that is tractor powered, for example, reduces the demand for labor in the field several fold.

At the same time, however, it increases the demand for labor in the steel mills of Pittsburgh, the rubber plants of Akron, and the oil refineries of Tulsa. The same is true of other “labor-saving” innovations, of course.

The changing pattern of labor requirements that were associated with this phenomenon redistributed labor geographically as well as occupationally. The major considerations in locating a steel mill or an automobile assembly plant are not the same as those guiding the location of a wheat farm or a sawmill, for example. While land is the determining factor in the latter case, in the former it is large quantities of labor, capital, and accessibility to markets.

Thus, as labor changed occupations it also changed its places of residence. In most cases this resulted in shifts of the population toward more densely settled areas.

In the wake of these changes, many small towns simply lost their reasons for existence. There was no longer a need for large numbers of small settlements scattered over the countryside.

The principal patterns of economic and social activity changed rapidly. But the institutional framework did not. Political boundaries remained fixed. The number of county governments declined by only one between 1957 and 1967.

Although school consolidation has moved at a brisk pace ever since 1940, nearly a quarter of our school systems still had an enrollment of fewer than 50 pupils as recently as 1967.

Attendees of Oak Grove School, Oakwood Oklahoma.

While the small settlements that have suffered from this process are often characterized as bypassed communities, the term itself is somewhat misleading. It is misleading because it defines community in a static rather than a dynamic sense. The community, when viewed as an area within which prominent socio-economic forces interact, has changed drastically.

It is the institutional settings that have failed to keep pace with the changing times. Our attachment to these institutions has inhibited our making many needed adjustments.

In the absence of this adjustment, there has arisen an incongruity in what we call a “community” and what in practice serves as a community. We continue attempting to deal with each crossroads settlement and village hamlet as though it were an autonomously functioning unit for which separate community decisions can be made.

We count the number of “communities” that lack water systems and the number whose population grows or fails to grow through time. We lament that the standard of living within these places is shockingly low in comparison with the remainder of our society.

In all too many instances our solution is to attempt rejuvenation of a totally obsolete institution. It is becoming clear that this won’t work. It hasn’t in the past and it won’t in the future.

But if these solutions won’t work, what will? Is there no hope for bringing the people who live in these places nearer the mainstream of our contemporary society? I believe there is, but only after a rather careful look at the fundamentals of our social organization.

Three facets that seem to me to be in particular need of a reexamination are our systems of: institutional flexibility, social compensation, and policy rationale.

Institutional Flexibility.

Failure of our social institutions to maintain relevancy in the face of constantly changing needs is a key ingredient. By perpetuating a system of governing institutions based on past patterns of population settlement, for example, the adjustment to changing conditions has been seriously hampered.

It is totally unrealistic to view many of these small places as entities in their own right, capable of providing their citizenry with the full array of public services and facilities consistent with contemporary standards.

Thus, if the people of these villages and hamlets are to share more fully in the fruits of contemporary society, one must view their settlements for what they are—highly dependent parts of a much larger system. They are dependent upon the larger area for jobs, specialized health services, entertainment, consumer goods, higher education, and for a long list of other service items.


Though many of the activities associated with the private sector have already transcended these illusionary boundaries, this dependence has not yet become institutionalized within the public sector. And, since it has not, several of the more vital community functions continue to be performed along the old institutional boundaries—if, indeed, they are performed at all.

It is time, therefore, for us to revise our institutions to accommodate these changes. Some efforts toward this end are already underway. The Federal Government, through the Bureau of the Budget, has asked State governments to delineate these larger “communities” and to begin developing an institutional framework through which each can function with some degree of autonomy. To date, some 30 States have designated over 270 sub-State districts.

But beyond the need for recasting and modernizing present institutions lies an even more fundamental question. Namely, how do we avoid replacing one inflexible institution with another which is equally rigid and recalcitrant? Not only do we need institutions that are more responsive to contemporary needs but we need institutions with a built-in capacity to identify change and to adapt to it.

Social Compensation.

It is a natural outgrowth of a rapidly changing society that some individuals benefit at the expense of others. The costs of change are particularly evident in the small depressed rural settlements.

Thirty or 40 years ago the private market signaled that society valued employment and investments in these areas. In response, many people committed their capital and, in a sense, their lives to these places.
commitments took many forms:
- investments in facilities and equipment,
- homeownership,
- the development of personal relationships (family and friends),
- the learning of specialized trades,
- etc.

With changes in technology, the market value of many of these activities diminished. In part, this was a direct result of public investment aimed at improvements in the efficiency of production. It was also due, of course, to the forces of the market economy.

Regardless of the sources, however, the results of change have usually worked to the net advantage of the larger society. This is not to say that our blessings have been unmixed; greater industrialization has been accompanied by further pollution of the environment, for example. But even after allowing for these negative effects, I think one must conclude that the net result has been an overall net improvement.

We are faced, therefore, with a net gain for the whole of society while a small segment of the population incurs financial loss, if not hardship. Despite the absence of precise measures of the distribution of these benefits and costs, there is substantial evidence that a disparity exists.

Closed-down theater in Kentucky town.

The conventional approach to the distribution of the results of change has been to leave it to the market mechanism and, when that fails, the political process. Limitations of this approach are becoming increasingly apparent.

Two of the limitations are particularly glaring:
- (1) it has provided those who stand to suffer from the adoption of change with a motivation to resist it;
- (2) it has often left those who suffer loss without the capacity to adjust.

As our society becomes more highly interdependent with further increases in specialization and urbanization, and as the public sector grows in relative importance, these limitations will become even more apparent.

Policy Rationale.

Finally, one senses a growing need for a rationale to our public policies.

Daniel Moynihan, Counselor to the President, estimates that the number of domestic programs of the Federal Government increased from 45 to 435 between 1960 and 1968.

It is little wonder that the growing complexity surrounding this proliferation of programs has made it difficult to discern a sense of national purpose. Comparatively few of the programs are tightly coordinated; some work at cross purposes.

As a Nation, we are in need of a communality of purpose. Not a regimented, federally imposed plan but a coherent and mutually consistent approach to the satisfaction of diverse objectives.

Absence of an overall strategy has been a special handicap to the small towns that lie beyond the metropolitan fringe.

Too weak to set forth a plan of action of their own and too isolated from the influence of urban areas, these places have become dependent upon assistance from higher levels of government. Until they can become effectively integrated into the affairs of the larger community, one of their best hopes will lie in formation of a national development strategy.

< Back to Top of Page