January 23, 2013 —
We are blessed to live in a place with fresh air, clean water and a laidback quality of life. No matter what our situations or beliefs on individual issues or politics, we all hold these values to be important.
Enough of these Potemkin Villages. Beneath them lies a good foundation, but with serious cracks that must be repaired. Rural communities everywhere are facing serious problems. Each community is a single location with different populations. The part-time community has a primary residence elsewhere (typically an urban location); is generally more affluent with more formal education; wants high-speed Internet, proximity to good roads to their primary residences, a pristine environment, and access to restaurants, entertainment and the arts; and most significantly, has little real civic involvement. In contrast, the fulltime residents are rurally based; the population is aging as the young move away and the rest get older; these residents are subject to growing economic pressures and offer a poor tax base for their communities; people want jobs and lower taxes; and this citizenry bears the burden of ongoing community management.
These are different cultures and they are not always comfortable with each other.
This situation is not limited to our area. It has been studied by groups such as the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Without going into detail, they note that, unless addressed, the situation can get worse. Young people understand the situation, and when possible move away to where the jobs have better long-term potential. There is little meaningful involvement in new industry. There is higher unemployment. There are fewer newcomers. The community’s costs for health and support continue to rise with an aging population. The lack of resources leads to isolation and gets in the way of participating in the broader society. And finally, there is less trust.
We all recognize the above. At the same time, we sometimes fail to recognize that it creates an environment in which our thinking and actions are fear-driven—fear of change, fear of losing a lifestyle, fear of particular forms of economic activities, fear of losing an investment, fear of—well, pick you own. All very negative.
The Carsey studies identify some concrete, overlapping, positive steps that we can all take without trading off our quality of life values.
• Nothing substitutes for a first-rate education system—one that provides a basis to grow, to change and to move on to the next step, whether it be jobs or more education. The data is clear. More education results in more income, better health and comfort in dealing with change.
• A diverse industry provides a combination of immediate and future jobs. It has an ecosystem that grows and attracts entrepreneurs. It attracts newcomers who want to start businesses here and who want to retire here.
• A vibrant middle class is essential. It is the backbone that enables growth, makes the community more inviting, and enables meaningful civic involvement.
• Most significantly, all of the above must facilitate respect and an open dialogue. While we like to talk about American as a melting pot, it is really a stew—one where the flavors are different, but work together.
Meaningful progress calls for a fundamental change of thinking. We need to stop looking at “them” as the cause of our ills, or the source of solutions that never seem to come. Instead, recognize that we (all taken together) have the resources needed to determine our own destiny. To be trite, paraphrasing Jack Kennedy, “Let (us) explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us…. Ask not what (others) will do for you, but what together we can do for (our community).”
[Mike Uretsky is a resident of Damascus, PA.]