Rural America is taking a beating in the news. Part of it is deserved. I grew up in rural Indiana and am shocked at some of what is going on there: severe hard drug problems, HIV outbreaks, serious crime, etc.
Things are a long way from when I was a kid there in the 70s and 80s and people not only left their doors unlocked, they left their keys in the car.
While I don’t want to minimize the challenges facing rural America, there’s a lot that has flat out gotten better since I first moved to Harrison County in first grade around 1976.
The county where I grew up got a casino that spins off huge amounts of cash. So it’s not the norm. But even excluding everything that happened after the casino arrived, here are seven ways life has gotten better there.
1. Water service. I laugh when urbanites brag about watering their flowers with runoff they caught in their “rain barrel.” That’s what we drank growing up. No city water service was available, so you had no choice but to dig a well or have a cistern. We had a cistern that was filled with rainwater from our roof. In your cistern raw low, there was an actual industry of people who would come refill it from a tanker truck. Today, people where I grew up have access to water service if they want it.
2. Trash service. Similar to water service, there was no public or commercial trash pickup when I was a kid. You had to throw food scraps to animals and burn your trash in a 55 gallon drum. When it filled up with tin cans and the like, or if you needed to dispose of a larger item like a TV, lots of people had their own dumps on their property. Today you can get commercial trash pickup if you want it.
3. Private telephone lines. Believe it or not, when I was a kid we had a party line. That means multiple families shared the same phone line. If you needed to make a call, you’d pick up the phone and find out if your neighbors where using the line before dialing. You couldn’t get a private line unless somebody who had one died first. Somewhere along the way, the phone company put in an upgrade and you could get a private phone line. (On the downside, it’s no longer possible to dial people in town using just four digits anymore).
4. Paved roads. The road we lived on was gravel when I first moved there. Most roads in the county were paved, but quite a few were still gravel. Today the roads are all in amazing shape because of the casino, but even before then my road and others were paved using a technique called “chip and seal.” Basically this involves spraying some kind of tar on the road, then covering it in fine gravel, which is compacted into a paving surface. No more massive clouds of dust.
5. Satellite TV. When I was in high school in the 80s, cable was starting to get big. People where I lived might have wanted their MTV, but they couldn’t get it. There was maybe cable TV in the county seat (I’m not sure). But most folks were stuck with 4-5 over the air channels showing I Love Lucy reruns. Today, thanks to satellite TV, people in rural America have access to every channel you can get in town.
6. Internet Service. The web hadn’t even been invented back in the 70s and 80s. The internet was a small, government and academic network. Today, there’s pretty wide broadband availability through either some kind of DSL type service or satellite internet. My father has satellite internet and it works pretty good if you ask me.
7. Amazon, Apple and Netflix. Speaking of the internet, this provided access to pretty much every book ever published. The days of needing to be in a big city with a cool indie record store in order to get good tunes is over. You can now get access to products people in Chicago couldn’t dream of when I was a kid.
Actually, I could list a whole bunch more things besides these, but I want to be sure not to include anything that might have come from casino money. And I see all kinds of interesting things that were probably never there before in other small towns I visit, such as good coffee shops.
Not that long ago you were in a sense cut off from the world if you lived in a rural area. Today that’s not the case in many places. I’m not going to claim life is perfect in these areas. They have big, serious challenges. But in a number of ways life has just plain gotten better in rural America in the past two to three decades.
Rod Stevens says
A fascinating profile. I live on Bainbridge Island, one of the most affluent and well-educated places in the Pacific Northwest, across Puget Sound Sound about five miles from Seattle. We don’t have a very well managed city here, and the tax base is mostly residential, so we’re having problems paving our roads. The city government recently went back to “chip and seal”, which doesn’t last as long nor is as comfortable to drive on, but it helps the city hold onto its employees.
wkg in bham says
I’d call it an improvement, but I‘m not sure rural people would: the explosion of wild life in rural/exurban areas. Deer are almost a pest. Eagles, hawk and turkeys, which used to be a very rare sighting are now common (well not exactly common I just can’t think of a better word).
Carl Meddle says
Seems to me this is a very local list. Not to denigrate any of it as these are real improvements,
But in many locations 1-4 wouldn’t be any problem as you describe them here. Water would be from a deep well or organised by the municipality. This all comes down to population density, local politics and the landscape (intense farming or forestal living). Trash might also be organised by municipality, but dumped onto a landfill without sorting. As for no. 3, In many WE countries there’d be a state monopoly who provided telephone connections everywhere (though I believe Scandinavia were at the front here – In the 1970’s French countryside you’d be referred to Monsieur Bordot, the local pub, the railway station or something equivalent for a telephone call. Many villages fought with France Telecom for getting a public phone booth, I don’t think this was an issue in Scandinavia as everyone there had access to a telephone in their homes – A telephone booth there was for calling someone when out in the public and not your life-line as in many rural parts of France). These monopolies were very slow and top-down in providing service, a repair could take months, but in providing new connections they were in many cases quite efficient. No. 4 was a local issue as well though it’s true there were many more gravel roads or just awful roads (narrow, twisted, heavily trafficked by everyone etc) back then.
5-7 is general for all of society whether urban or rural. I’d condense this to Internet in general in the list. What I mean is, say that in 1970 you wanted to make a phone call from the Queens to your relatives in Italy you once emigrated from (not unlikely as there were still people in their 70-80s who’d crossed the Atlantic in the 1920’s back then). One hour of speech USA-Italy would cost half of your pension, a quarter of your monthly salary or something within that range. Even if you were in the high income bracket you’d write most down in letters and send them by the postal service which would take at least a week before arrival or so. In comparison an hour of Skype phone call won’t cost you a dime.
Another wonder the Internet has brought is as you describe improved qualities in food, coffee etc. Products such as hot chili sauce or equivalent can be ordered online and delivered anywhere (it might have been possible in 1970 as well, but you were constrained by the supply you were provided with in catalogues. You also needed knowledge to know there were chili in the first place). I’m just waiting for a revolution in fresh produce – We’re still stuck with 1-2 different kinds of potatoes but we have perhaps 50 different types of potato chips in the same store. I’d love to be able to choose between 200-300 different sorts of potatoes and have them delivered to my home if this was possible.
Jeffrey Jakucyk says
Most of these items are ones that require huge subsidies to provide, either through higher taxes or utility rates for urban dwellers. Most small towns and rural areas are wards of the state, the problem is they don’t know it and even think the opposite is true.
You just described Illinoisans outside of the favored third of Chicago proper, N and NW Cook County, southern Lake County, and DuPage County.
Rod Burkett says
I enjoyed reading your observations; they brought back many memories. I grew up in Central Indiana in the 1950s & 60s. In addition to your list, I think most people have inside toilets today; I did not enjoy that luxury until I went to college. Using the outhouse at a temperature of 20 degrees below zero was a memorable experience. Also, in my part of the state, most farmers raised hogs in addition to grain crops so another change today from that time is fewer odors while driving through the countryside. We thought of the odor as the smell of money.
George Mattei says
Aaron-thought. Wonder if the fact that rural areas now have access to media and a view to the outside world that is driving part of the issue with drugs and crime. After all, if everyone around you lives like you do, then you feel ok. Rural dwellers in the 70s still had much more than those in say the 30’s.
But suddenly you’re watching tv and YouTube and seeing all these things folks in wealthier areas have and it leads to envy, then feelings of inadequacy.