The Disappearing Villages

Shifts in business, technology, and demographics, are leading to the disappearance of small towns in rural areas.


Article created by the The Century Foundation.

Trends in business, technological advances, and demographics have converged to bring about dramatic changes that are affecting the lives of everyone on the planet. One disturbing change being wrought by these trends is dramatic only to those directly affected, and is more likely to be noticed and addressed on a national level by mapmakers than policymakers. It is the disappearance of small towns and villages in rural areas.

The people who remain in these communities that are facing obsolescence are part of the demographic trend known as the aging of the population, that is, retired senior citizens. When that trend is combined with the changes in business and technology that have rendered the family farm and small ranch an economic impossibility and moved good job opportunities to large cities, what are essentially ghost towns result.

This trend is most obvious in Japan and America—the two countries at the top of the list of industrialized nations, and the two countries with some of the most densely packed urban centers of trade and commerce. Among the disappearing are
Bowbells, North Dakota,
and
Ogama, Japan.
Once thriving small communities, these places are fast losing their young people, becoming instead the
home of the elderly living on the edge and approaching the time when they can no longer care for themselves.

For example, Bowbells, which had a population of 800 in the 1950s, today has but 300 citizens. The grocery in town does not carry fresh produce and the nearest dry cleaner is ninety miles away. But those developments are minor compared to the fact that the county in which Bowbells is located does not have a resident physician or a drugstore.

A
report
by the Alice Paterson Foundation notes that seven rural North Dakota hospitals have closed since 1987 and that only 330 of the state’s 1,380 licensed physicians practice in rural areas, adding that while 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, only 11 percent of the nation’s physicians are there. In fact, the Great Plains “account for 56 percent of U.S. counties with elderly people (65 and older) exceeding 20 percent of the population. The national average is 12.4 percent. The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis recently noted the ‘graying’ of its area, observing, for example, that the over-65 population of Hutchinson County , South Dakota amounts to 26 percent.”

What does the future hold for these communities of the aged? Well, some will voluntarily disappear. That is the future for Ogama. The New York Times
notes
that Ogama is not a special case: “Out of 140 villages in Monzen—the municipality that includes Ogama—40 percent have fewer than 10 households, most of which are inhabited by the elderly.” And so, the eight remaining residents
of Ogama have resigned themselves to leaving, and are selling their city to an industrial waste company from Tokyo, which plans to turn it into a landfill. They will use the money from the sale to resettle elsewhere.

The small communities that dot the Great Plains have not yet reached that point. Instead they, and their leaders, are trying to find ways to ensure not only that they survive, but that they grow.

A bipartisan group of senators from the region, perhaps most notably Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, have been trying for years to pass a
New Homestead Act,
which, in the spirit of the 1862 Homestead Act that helped populate the region by offering land to settlers, would reward individuals financially if they make a commitment to live and work in rural areas suffering from high out-migration and would provide business tax credits to help states encourage and reward businesses to locate and expand in high out-migration areas.

At the same time, various communities in these states have been working to find ways to increase their populations, some with little success, others with good results. For example, about two years ago Marquette, Kansas, along with a dozen other towns in Kansas, began
giving away land
to families willing to build new homes there. James MacPherson of the Associated Press reported on January 3, 2006, that according to Marquette Mayor Steve Piper, “24 new homes have been built. The city’s population has
jumped from 527 to 650 in the past two years, and school enrollment has increased to about 150, up from 118.”

Some call for programs that will pay for the education of doctors and nurses in return for service in these communities; others suggest relocation programs for the elderly left behind. In the long run, many of these communities will simply disappear because they are located in places with uninviting climates and no viable industries close enough to make them plausible bedroom communities for larger cities.

The long run, however, is not the real issue. The issue is developing programs now that will provide those left behind with the medical care and services that they need to live on in the places where they have spent their whole lives.

Of course, ghost towns are not a new phenomenon. The side roads of the American West are speckled with the remnants of disappeared cities—small clusters of gray, dilapidated edifices not yet completely flattened and blown away by time and weather. Those places are a part of our past, and the pain caused by those disappearances is lost in history. But the pain being caused by today’s disappearances is all too real and needs to be addressed now.