Small Towns and Megatrends
From 1776 to 1941, America’s growth was driven by the expansion of virtually every small town in America. Americans wanted freedom, elbow room, and time to enjoy relationships; however, that has all changed since World War II. This column is the first in a series that expands on last week’s effort which asks the rhetorical question, “Why is Bourbon County Shrinking?” I will share my research and attempt to identify the primary drivers, beginning with the forces that birthed urbanization.
Rapid industrialization of America was forced on us by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. We became embroiled in a war, not of our own choosing, and we were not ready. Something had to be done quickly. Early naval battles after December 7, 1941 revealed that our weaponry was hopelessly outdated and unreliable. We had to mobilize and innovate, as our very survival was at stake. We were very close to an invasion of our West Coast and we had no time for political correctness. We had to build factories, manufacture steel, and produce cutting edge machinery, weaponry, and ammunition.
To further incentivize new plants and the expansion of existing plants, lucrative tax incentives and accelerated depreciation were used. This effectively had the impact of shifting the tax burden of the war effort disproportionately to small town America. We continued to pay the freight without the benefit of new factories and new jobs. No patriotic American complained, as everyone understood the urgency of the task.
No one could have foreseen that this urbanization would begin to change the culture of America. As cities grew, swelling with the influx of workers to support the war effort, well-planned suburbs began to spring up and cities and the surrounding communities grew together. Suburban living was born and exploded after the war, facilitating the “Baby Boom” generation. This demographic grew rapidly from 1946 to 1964; you might have guessed that major cities benefitted far more than small towns during that time period, as returning soldiers filled the factory jobs now vacated by stay at home moms.
America prospered after the war, and the luxury of disposable income was experienced by a high number of citizens. This megatrend was met by the entertainment industry competing for these dollars. The “Boomers” fell in love with movies, the theater, ball games, golf, and numerous entertainment choices available in large cities. As the value systems of Americans began to change, more and more young people left the “boring, dead end” life of small communities for high paying jobs and the entertainment choices of metropolitan areas. The entertainment culture was born, and was adopted in mass by the children of the Boomers, who had no connection to small town living.
In retrospect, these megatrends look like forgone conclusions. What could have small town Americans done to mitigate these trends? Not much. As Yogi Berra is quoted as saying, “If people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s going to stop them!” Right now, the ballpark of small town America is emptying out.
Next week: Where Have All the Farmers Gone?