Fighting for an American Countryside: an age-old problem

If you look at the ways in which community prosperity is typically measured–by income, age or education level–many rural areas in Minnesota don’t stack up very well. In recent decades, people in small towns have seen declining populations and opportunities, as farms have become larger and more industrialized and factories have installed robotics or moved to Mexico and beyond.

Today, rural people are generally poorer, older and less college educated than those in cities. That means they draw more per capita in certain types of federal payments, including medical benefits, retirement and disability payments, unemployment insurance and veterans’ benefits. In an era of scarce public dollars and ever-more cantankerous budget debates, rural areas have become targets for sharp rhetoric and program cuts.

Yet, as we detail in our new Ground Level eBook, “Fighting for an American Countryside,” this tightening of resources has led to inventive thinking among many in rural Minnesota. People in small towns are working to reinvent their local economies and find new ways to do things, whether Muriel Krusemark’s push to fill Main Avenue in Hoffman one storefront at a time or Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin’s program that trains Latino immigrants to run their own farms.

As Haslett-Marroquin said in a video,  included in the eBook, “Empowerment is really creating the conditions so that an individual can be who they want to be.”

Aging is one of the biggest demographic issues facing rural Minnesota. It’s a problem that has spawned common phrases like “the coming silver tsunami.” In the next decade, the state is expected to have more people over 65 than school-aged children, a shift that disproportionately affects rural areas,  already older than the average.

Some outstate towns with large immigrant populations, like Milan in western Minnesota, are countering the trend toward an older populace. You can hear more about Milan’s growing Micronesian population from MPR News reporter Dan Olson here.

The shift toward older Minnesotans—where there are more people drawing public benefits and fewer working to pay for them—will dramatically alter many aspects of life, primary among them the delivery of health care. Simply spending more isn’t an option, given limited funding. So people look for new approaches to old problems.

Verna Toenyan, who was raised in Eagle Bend in central Minnesota, organizes and advocates for seniors in Todd County, where nearly one out of five residents is 65 or older. Though she’s in her sixties herself, she often begins her days at 5 a.m. and works until well after dark, occasionally pulling her car over for a nap on the shoulder of the road. She knits people and public and private dollars together in a myriad of creative combinations.

Toenyan helped start a nonprofit bakery and a rural Meals on Wheels service, and she teaches the elderly to use email. All are programs that allow seniors to age in their houses, rather than in nursing homes, as she said on video as part of the eBook.

Rural towns are perfect environments for efforts like these, in Toenyan’s view. “I think the big benefits are socialization,” she said. “Everybody knows everybody. Socialization is the best pill you can take every day.” She said her husband, who has Alzheimer’s, has declined very slowly, thanks to the conversations he has every day. “To me that’s amazing. And I think it’s part of the rural community.”