Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Love or hate him, President Donald Trump isn’t why today’s political climate is so toxic. But there just might be a way we can mend those divides, at least here in Mitchell County.

The Problem

It was a cloudy, over-cast day when Roger Stone stood on the steps of a Florida federal courthouse. The long-time advisor to President Donald Trump had just been indicted by the FBI in charges of making false statements to Congress, obstructing justice and witness tampering. He looked pleased to be surrounded by cameras, microphones and a mob of reporters and protestors.

“The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about,” Stone smugly began, showered in camera-flashes and a chorus of boos from crowd.

On the surface, the spectacle was just another development in the on-going FBI investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

But with his choice of words, Stone touched on something much deeper, and much more troubling than any investigation of ‘collusion’, real or made up, could potentially reveal.

Because whether you like President Trump or not, one day he’ll be gone, and the pain that has turned over the applecart of modern politics will remain.

To be clear, it’s not a pain Trump created. In fact, no one person can be blamed for it. Trump is merely a symptom of it (we’ll let history decide if he was a good symptom or a bad one).

But it’s a pain establishment Democrats, Republicans and the mainstream media has largely ignored, and a pain that Trump was able to recognize and ride to victory in the 2016 election.

It’s a pain that has seeped into the fabric of middle-class America. It’s a pain that we feel right here in the Midwest, and right here in rural Iowa.  It makes us angry with the way things are, fed up with our elected officials. “Government” is now a dirty word, “politics” make us scoff. Social media has become a petri dish for hate and vileness.

And smugly, like a villain in a professional wrestling match, Roger Stone hit the nail on the head: the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.

And that’s why we’re all so upset. Our wages have stagnated, earnings have dropped off. Farm incomes have been hit especially hard here in rural Iowa. And we’re not being talked about. Our voices are going unheard. The ‘Folks in Washington’ are either unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

So we lash out at things we feel like we can control. We make a big deal about seemingly small matters, like fighting about the Pledge of Allegiance at local meetings. But at what cost?

The Numbers

Over the last decade, jobs and earnings have remained sluggish in rural Iowa. Flat job growth, along with sharp drops in farm incomes present a unique set of challenges for Iowans.

These findings came from Iowa State University’s recent “Rural Iowa at a Glance” report, which examined demographic, economic, and social trends in our state for the years 2007-2017. (Graphs from the report are shown).

According to the report, this stagnation in rural areas is driven by a downturn in goods producing industries like manufacturing and construction, and also by four straight years of losses in the farm economy. Farm incomes have been in “free-fall” since 2013, the report said, dropping 75 percent since then. Other rural jobs have seen barley any growth at all.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

Population has been a factor, as well. Metro areas in Iowa are booming, yet rural populations are shrinking. Non-metro areas have lost over 10 percent of their child and high school/college age population since 2013, and have seen around a 5 percent decrease among all age groups. 

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Further, the jobs have followed the people. Since the 2008 recession, the number of jobs in metro areas has grown but rural jobs never recovered.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

In 2017 alone, Mitchell County itself lost around 1 percent of its population and the average earnings of its residents dropped by over 5 percent.

Our young kids are leaving, and not coming back. Local school enrollments are declining, and must share resources in order to survive. Our wages have stagnated, yet prices and the cost of living continues to rise. It’s no wonder many of us are upset.

The Solution

On a cold winter night last week, several  business leaders, government officials and prominent members of the public from across Mitchell County gathered for an informal meeting at the nature center west of Osage. The goal: discuss how Mitchell County can work together to tackle the problems afflicting rural Iowa, and thereby attract new people to our area.

Folding chairs and tables were set in a large circle, and one by one, attendees sunk into chairs and quietly waited.

A concerned member of the public spoke up, noting how all three county supervisors were present.

I’m no lawyer, he said, but think very carefully about what you’re doing here.

I talked to the county attorney today, one supervisor said, but others cut his sentence off and it became lost in garbled arguments over the legality of this and that.

The attendees shifted in their seats; some members didn’t seem to know exactly why they were there. When the meeting finally began the topic switched to kayaks to bike trails, and gingerly the attendees joined the conversation one at a time.

The question they looked to answer was: how do we attract people to our region? How do we improve what our area offers? How do we get the word out about what we do have? And how can we work together to achieve this? Metro areas like Des Moines have shown considerable growth, but data shows that rural Iowa is quickly falling behind. So what do we do?

Well, meetings like this one are a good start – getting the right people together in the same room, and hopefully they can come up with the right idea. In fact, some really good ideas were shared at this meeting.

But as the conversation dragged on, it became clear only a handful of people were participating.  Not everyone seemed comfortable, not everyone seemed willing to contribute. The tension brought on by the initial outburst never fully subsided. A few emails and texts sent out prior to the meeting even read: “If anyone in attendance feels they need to push an agenda or steer us into negative debate… we will end the meeting.”

At a time when we need to be bold and proactive, we’re timid. We’re afraid to talk to one another, afraid to share ideas. We shout down those who disagree with us. We let our anger get in the way of progress, and the rest of us are too afraid to speak out against it. Most of us would rather not get involved.

But if Mitchell County is to right the ship before it veers too far off course, we must work together.

Because the one thing worse than talking, is not talking at all.

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