The darkened counties of this 2007 map are losing population. America's small towns and rural counties have been declining for decades, a trend which seems to have no end in sight. As rural America empties, nothing at all seems to be filling the void. Main Street, USA, is for rent or for sale at bargain prices. 40,000,000 acres of American farmland are now fallow. The rural "brain drain", in which the best and the brightest are constantly migrating to the cities, has become cliche. Our rural areas are increasingly plagued with high unemployment, substance abuse, and other pathologies.
This is a disaster for the United States. Small town and rural life is uniquely suited to fostering traditional mores and habits of mind, to inspiring regional and familial loyalties, and to living the Christian virtues amongst neighbors whom you did not choose, but who were chosen for you before you were born. A small town has a personality, like a man, and must be accepted like a crazy uncle with warts and all. In the rural districts one cannot pretend to be independent: you need your neighbors, whether or not you happen to like them, and over time you learn to like them well enough. The mainstays of a traditional life - ritual, familiarity, memory, transparency, patriarchy, personal loyalty - can flourish only in settled communities organized on a human scale. The demise of such communities reduces American culture to that of an urban sit-com.
Can anything be done about this? Should anyone care?
Massive economic and cultural forces lay behind the trend. Government, technology, finance, and entertainment drive everything. As rural America embraces "the American Dream", there ceases to be anything especially compelling about remaining in such places. The American Dream, as it has been sold to us all, isn't likely to be realized in a small town. The great centers of population and commerce offer much more in the way of "opportunity" (translation: a chance to get rich), and even if you don't get rich, well, there are plenty of consoling diversions. But if rural America is going to be saved, it will need to exchange "the American Dream" for the reality it already owns - a place to call home.
By far the most critical need for America's rural counties is children. Most large cities are always receiving migrants and are not much harmed by low birthrates. But small towns in rural districts, due to higher rates of out-migration, need higher birthrates to survive. 2.1 children may be "population neutral" for the developed world in general, but for most small towns it means rapid and inevitable population decline. Without a dramatic reversal of the present low birthrates in rural counties, continued decline and ultimate catastrophe is absolutely guaranteed.
Finally, there needs to be a revival of regional affections and loyalties, which paradoxically is going to mean relocation for a few regional-minded folks. Being a regional loyalist in a sea of cosmopolitans - or even in a community of transient American dream chasers - is not going to do anyone much good. We are essentially starting over. Americans of traditionalist sensibilities, if they don't already have roots in places with stable and otherwise desirable regional identities, might want to establish them in such places for the sake of their progeny - even if it means living as an exile for the remainder of their own lives.