The Depressed Southern Small Town Economy

I wrote this as an email to a good friend of mine shortly after I returned from a 3 week family road road trip. I've tweaked it for public consumption, but for the most part remains the same.

We traveled through 13 states (4,500 miles) to see family and just spend some time together. It was an eye opener. I saw more of the country than many people will in their lifetimes. It was particularly interesting because of the current economy of course, the impact of which was more evident on the southern leg of our trip.

When I was about 7, I lived in a small town on the Mississippi called Helena, Arkansas. I've been back many times since, and have watched it decline from the prosperous farming town it once was, to a town with a 24 hour curfew in a certain section.

I've spent many an hour thinking through the reasons for this decline, and what follows are my thoughts. It is a long read, but I wanted to get these thoughts out here. I offer thoughts on a potential first step to solution at the end.

If you have comments or thoughts, please leave them. I'd love to open a dialog on this and see what others are thinking.

My thoughts on why small town economies are depressed – in no particular order.

Walmart – Money spent at Walmart goes to Bentonville, AR, and doesn't circulate locally. Within the township, any number of shops existed where Walmart now thrives – from drug stores, to hardware, electronics, and grocery stores. Each of those businesses employed people, which provided real money for the economy. Even the trucking infrastructure is privately operated.

In larger areas, Walmart is just one of many common big box stores. They don't displace smaller shops where smaller shops have never existed – think suburbia and sprawl. But in small towns they're simply devastating.

Farming subsidies – I don't know the exact history of this yet, but based on what I do know, the local farmers have essentially shut down operations instead choosing to take hand-outs from the government. They used to provide jobs and revenue – again for the local community. Sure, the farmers are OK, but the workers are not.

Welfare – Much like metro communities, welfare has become a way of life – instead of being the help that was needed in crisis. Children that are born to a family receiving welfare are more likely to continue to rely on welfare as they become adults. It is what they know, and are provided little incentive to change it.

Apathy – “This is the way it has always been, and I can't change it, so be it. We get along.” Simple things like trash along the roads, to collapsing structures, to seeing people do the wrong thing while silently standing in fear – all contribute to an unremarkable living experience.

Dignity – The vast majority of these people are good, hard working people that simply have nothing to do and nowhere to work. Churches help maintain a positive social structure. They have family and I think ultimately want better for them. But given the struggling economy and the reality of their current situations, they struggle with their pride and dignity – many do things they're not proud of.

Casinos – People go to these places for entertainment, but how many are hoping to win big to solve their financial problems? Even people that don't work will find a way in to these places in hopes of winning big. Money spent in the casinos doesn't stay in the community, it goes to a corporate office in another state. Sure there are jobs, but there aren't nearly enough to support a town of 14,000. Some of the revenue also goes to the state, but the state clearly isn't investing it back in to the communities from which it originated.

Drugs – Of course there are drugs. Drugs are the way a select set of people are hoping to survive or maybe even better. Drugs are escapism at the core, but the damage it causes to a small community is devastating. From increased budgetary considerations (law enforcement, etc.), to violence, crime, unsanitary conditions, etc.

Consumerism – As we drove through Mississippi, it was interesting to see a pimped out car in front of a building with a collapsing roof. I believe that advertising and lifestyle, while not problems unique to these communities, contributes more here. Kids want to make money to buy things that give them a certain appearance. I've been there and done that and get it, but I no longer have that desire. I wonder how one can discourage that in a younger generation. How can you teach the 4 year olds in the town to spend responsibly? How can you show a high schooler that earning money to support his family is a far better thing than having that pair of $150 shoes?

While these are huge issues to tackle, I believe that as a part of a grand plan they can all be addressed.

Imagine a scenario where a message is sent to the Obama volunteers of one of these towns. The message simply directs the recipients to post flyers inviting everyone that reads the flyer to a general town meeting (we even provide the flyers). The meeting's organizers are simply listening to the needs and desires of those that show up. You know by the fact that these people are in the room, that they are there to affect change. Real change. You'll also know exactly what they need – and while it may not be possible to address everything, you will know what the hot items are.

City leaders would be invited, but are not encouraged to come. My view on this is that the leadership of these towns are the very people that are responsible for the current conditions. The casinos possibly paying leadership under the table, Walmart affecting the town by proxy, etc. Even if it isn't true, it will be the perception of the people that may want to come. Eventually the two can come together.

We could provide a simple set of directives for those that show up… go out on a weekend and pick up the trash along a main road. Find a few structures that need to be dismantled in order to clean up a street. Provide some really basic stuff to see if, and how they respond. We'd build a real community – not based on the boundaries of a township, but based on participation, pride and the genuine sense of accomplishment.

This is the way you free yourself from debt, or lose weight. One small step at a time. Anything that fixes the problem quickly will fail as it doesn't fix the problem… it fixes the result of the problem.

It turns out that while we lived in Helena, my father Bob tried to convince the cities that this was coming. The city governments were more concerned about maintaining their power than providing the residents with a plan for the future. I knew he was involved in “The Great Debate” but I never knew what it truly meant.

What do you think?

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Husband, father, epic adventurer, perpetually curious, rule breaker, startup guy, innovator, maker.

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