Look to Iowa's Future, Not Its Past: A Response to Bloom

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Iowa is a state in flux. It's a farm state whose workers don't work on them, and whose residents are increasingly urban and diverse.

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CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- What is Iowa? I've puzzled over that question for most of the 23 years I've lived here; Stephen Bloom tried to answer it in his recent article in The Atlantic online. He sees a rural wasteland, whose farming and then manufacturing jobs have fled, leaving nothing for those who remain but slaughterhouse gigs that only illegal immigrants will take, and churches, guns, hunting, xenophobia, sloth, despair, and perhaps even meth.

But few Iowa small towns are thus ravaged, and in any case only a minority of Iowans lives in rural areas; 60 percent of the population lives in the city. Some of these urban areas are skuzzy, as Bloom says, and some have problems he doesn't mention, such as gang violence; but others are reviving themselves and even thriving. When Adam Nagourney returned to Des Moines in 2007 to cover the caucuses for The New York Times, he was stunned at how much the place had been gentrified in 30 years, and was particularly enthusiastic about the gourmet restaurants (and who could blame a reporter for that?). Richard Florida estimated in The Atlantic recently that you get a higher standard of living for a given income in Des Moines than in any other American city.

Bloom documents the quaint habits of older people in rural Iowa: men who won't leave home without a penknife in their pockets, women who bring a red Jello mold to a wedding reception, people who refer to cars as "ve-HICK-uls." But younger people in the same areas wouldn't dream of making a Jello mold, much less bringing one to a reception (which is almost certainly catered), and linguists tell us that only in the southern strip of the state do you hear the accent Bloom describes. In the north and northwest you are more likely to hear a Minnesota accent, and in the urban east, including Cedar Rapids, you'll probably hear something like what you'd hear in Northern Illinois. Language is just one of many areas in which Bloom underestimates the diversity of the state.

The historical patterns behind the flight from country to city were in process a century ago, and are international. In essence, as agricultural science has increased productivity, farming has required fewer and fewer workers (you can see why they love to demolish combines in derbies), and the new jobs have typically arisen in cities. Just 6.3 percent of Iowans are "farm operators," and in the last decade Iowa's metropolitan population grew by 9.1 percent while its rural population decreased by 7.4 percent.

City life changes your tastes and habits, and especially those of your children, and one habit that wanes is hunting. Since 1992, the absolute number of Iowans getting hunting licenses has declined by about 30 percent, in spite of a state population increase of about 8 percent during those two decades. The decline also reflects a generational change: younger people in rural areas are less likely than their elders to hunt. Like their city peers, many would rather play a computer game or drive a fast car (or maybe both at once). The percentage of Iowans who will ask Stephen Bloom about how his dog hunts is shrinking and aging; almost none of them live in the tony university neighborhood where Bloom now hangs his baseball cap.

As Bloom notes, the next historical job-creator after agriculture, manufacturing, was only a temporary fix for rural Iowans without college degrees. Manufacturers developed an annoying habit of laying off Iowa employees in favor of robotic, non-union, or off-shore workers. The scourges Bloom describes have sometimes followed.

But not all that often. A week after Bloom's article appeared, the Sunday New York Times front page reported that Iowa enjoys "lower unemployment, greater income growth, steadier home sales and fewer foreclosures than most others." Iowa's employment rate, it said, is seventh in the nation. Poverty? Iowa has it, but 27 states (plus the District of Columbia) have it worse. Meth? Most of Iowa's meth is produced in just 32 of its 99 counties (PDF) and meth lab seizures dropped from 1,500 in 2004 to 305 in 2010 -- a sign of real progress in the fight against this rural scourge.

Small-town Iowa often seem distinctly unravaged. I recall time I spent in the mid-1990s in Washington, Iowa, population roughly 7,000. The jobs there were mainly in manufacturing, at the University of Iowa half an hour north, and occasionally on the surrounding farms. Visit it and you'll notice a lovely park system and a refurbished town square with brick streets and a new bandstand, as well as a new public library. You might also hear music. When I was there, the Lutheran church choir performed Bach's challenging Christmas Oratorio. Iowa has hundreds of choirs, associated not only with churches but also with high schools, colleges, and communities. Brass bands also proliferate in the land of Harold Hill.

What should amaze Bloom is Iowa's sheer number of professional orchestras -- that is, orchestras whose members are paid to perform. I count seven in a state of 3,000,000, one per every 435,000 citizens. That is several times the national average. One resident of Washington, a pig-farmer, was the conductor and driving force behind the Southeast Iowa Symphony Orchestra, which still gives well-attended concerts in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, and Ottumwa.

Bloom mentions tractor pulls and combine-demolition derbies, and might add the NASCAR races in Newton, the drag strip north of Cedar Falls, and the rodeo in Leon. But he fails to notice Iowa's copious offerings of music, the spoken word, and theater. Iowa City offers nearly nightly readings of published fiction, literary non-fiction and poetry -- often world-class -- at Prairie Lights, an independent bookstore of a breed that is vanishing nationally. At The Mill, Bloom can partake of Iowa's thriving singer-songwriter scene; if he wants just to listen to this genre, he can tune in to Iowa Public Radio's "Studio One" stream. The Des Moines Opera is nationally renowned, and not only the University of Iowa but also Iowa State, the University of Northern Iowa, Grinnell, Drake, Luther, and other universities have music faculty and students who often hold concerts. And somewhere in any university town there is a public lecture or symposium, possibly featuring an internationally recognized expert. You might hear that speaker the next day being interviewed on one of Iowa Public Radio's award-winning talk shows.

As Washington shows, economic despair is not inevitable for small Iowa towns. I lived for many years in the admittedly sui generis Fairfield, which in addition to 7,000 locals has a mostly transplanted group of about 3,000 sometime followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who in 1976 founded Maharishi International University there (and later renamed it "Maharishi University of Management"). Fairfield was a mix of light manufacturing, farming, academics from Parsons College (whose bankruptcy made the campus available to the Maharishi), and the lawyers, doctors, bankers, and accountants who served them.

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Bernard Sherman is a senior producer and morning host for Iowa Public Radio. His books have been published by Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. The views expressed in this piece are his own and not those of Iowa Public Radio or the University of Iowa.

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