R ural America is in trouble. Rural economies have been declining for the past 25 years. A study of rural counties, especially those more than two hours from a metropolitan area, shows their populations have been steadily decreasing while their remaining residents age. Fortunately, Union County is still growing, albeit slowly. The county’s median income of $47,000 is similar to other rural counties. Our median age is 40, somewhat lower than the national rural county’s median age of 43.
In a comprehensive study of rural American counties, “The Hard Truths of Trying to ‘Save’ the Rural Economy,” Eduardo Porter concludes that manufacturing jobs will not be returning to rural counties, and high-tech industries need highly educated workers, found most easily in cities. High-tech companies succeed in urban areas already populated by similar companies.
What can be done? Union County wasted at least eight years of effort and money competing with every other county in the United States, trying to attract heavy industry. The reality is even if a large company wanted to move to Union County, both city and county officials agree we don’t have the available workforce or housing for imported workers.
Is economic development the only one way to measure prosperous communities? Government agencies use quantity of new jobs as a marker of economic success, even as most people working at those new jobs pay higher rents, have longer commutes and experience the daily stress of living surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other workers. It’s no surprise that these urban problems have brought increasing attention to quality of life as another valuable indicator of a community’s success.
As I see it, Union County is a thriving community, developing and prospering in our own rural low-key fashion. We don’t have traffic congestion, air pollution, water shortages, long lines for services, soaring real estate costs and high crime rates, all often related to rapidly growing economies. We do have a rich educational and cultural base provided by EOU, Cook Memorial Library, Art Center East, local museums, and four — soon to be five — theatres. We support our local schools. We benefit from exceptional health care providers and enjoy world-class outdoor recreation.
Do we live to work or work to live? In a study of American attitudes released just last week, only 49 percent responded that “having a successful career” is key to “having the American dream,” whereas
85 percent indicated that “to have freedom of choice in how to live” was essential. In addition, 83 percent indicated that “a good family life” was essential. As one young couple explained it: “The rewards are not things, they are experiences — a meal, a conversation, a walk, a hug.” This pattern — valuing community and individuality more than material success and social mobility — was expressed across all demographic and political categories.
In Northeast Oregon, we enjoy clear air, abundant water, wonderful natural surroundings and a four-seasons climate without weather extremes and humidity. Young couples are leaving big city jobs to move here because it’s a wonderful place to raise kids. Established professionals are moving here, impressed by the reasonable price and leisurely pace of everyday living, glad to leave worries of challenging traffic and urban crime. We’re small, safe and friendly. That’s why we’re not losing population. Unlike many rural counties, we’re not in economic crisis mode; we should be celebrating our good fortune.
New people bring new energies, ideas and talents, and we will benefit from their differing perspectives. (Beware of “We’ve always done it that way.”) We should also encourage the community improvement plans of long-term residents and always support high-quality local products and services, not corporations hundreds of miles away. Our successful agricultural community knows the way: High-quality seeds planted and effectively nurtured produce valuable crops. We are fortunate. With patience, experience and optimism, we have all the necessary ingredients to continue thriving as a rural community.