What America Is Losing as Its Small Towns Struggle

To erode small-town culture is to erode the culture of the nation.

The downtown streets of New London, Connecticut
The downtown streets of New London, Connecticut, population 27,000 (John Moore / Getty)

Seventy-five years ago, The Atlantic published an essay by a man named Arthur Morgan. The essay, “The Community—The Seed Bed of Society,” appeared in the February 1942 issue, and was later expanded into a book called The Small Community: Foundation of Democratic Life. Both the essay and the book were arguments on behalf of communities, especially small towns, which Morgan believed had been abandoned by modernity to become “an orphan in an unfriendly world … despised, neglected, exploited, and robbed.”

The social good of such places, Morgan insisted, was being “dissolved, diluted, and submerged by modern technology, commercialism, mass production, propaganda, and centralized government.” While many big-city residents might not worry about the fate of small towns, Morgan believed they should because the “controlling factors of civilization are not art, business, science, government. These are its fruits. The roots of civilization are elemental traits—good will, neighborliness, fair play, courage, tolerance, open-minded inquiry, patience.” These traits are best transmitted from one generation to the next in small communities, he argued, from where they are then spread throughout entire societies. To erode small-town culture was to erode the culture of the nation.

At a time when many small towns are in crisis—facing economic decline, drug addiction, despair—when economists and pundits recommend giving up on small towns, telling their populations to abandon their homes to find economic opportunity elsewhere, Morgan’s 75-year-old plea remains a trenchant warning. Some modern-day sociologists and historians, while not buying everything Morgan said and wrote about small towns, agree with his main point: Such places are vital threads in America’s fabric.

Even in his time, Morgan was sometimes accused of being a utopian dreamer, but he was also practically minded. He was a civil engineer who, after a peripatetic early life, came to care deeply about promoting community. He opened a business in Dayton, Ohio, where he had helped establish the Miami River Conservancy District to prevent flooding. Antioch College, located nearby in the village of Yellow Springs, appointed him to the board of trustees, and he became president of the school in 1920. There he created one of the first systems of “cooperative education,” a program in which students learned in traditional academic settings part-time, and worked in businesses and industries part-time.

After the passage of the law that created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Morgan to become the agency’s first chief. The TVA had a mandate to construct dams, turn unusable, flood-prone areas into productive farms or business sites, and produce and sell power, among other things. That would mean building and improving communities, too. For Morgan, the TVA presented a chance to do on a large scale what he’d been trying to do at Antioch and Yellow Springs: plan communities that would promote prosperity and social harmony. The TVA wasn’t really about dams and energy production at all, Morgan said, but “a designed and planned social and economic order.”

But Morgan frustrated FDR and other New Dealers. He wasn’t aggressive enough with the private power industry, they said, and he kept promoting a small “craft” economy rather than major industry. Amid the friction, Morgan picked arguments with other TVA directors, and in response, FDR fired him in 1938. He returned to Yellow Springs. His vision of creating ideal small communities remained, and he agitated for them the rest of his life, mainly through Community Service, Inc. (now called the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, a charity that focuses on land restoration, sustainable agriculture, and small economies). Morgan was suspicious of big business, but was also a free-enterprise idealist. His model communities, he knew, would thrive only if they had sound economies based on smaller, regional industries, agriculture, and crafts. “Modern ‘free initiative,’” he wrote of unrestrained capitalism, “such as has prevailed in England and America, through great concentration of economic power has robbed the average man of much of his freedom, but has failed to retain a sense of mutual regard and responsibility.”

Some derided Morgan as being stuck in the 19th century. In some ways, he was. A few of his predictions were outdated before he wrote them. For example, even as interstate commerce expanded, he declared that “we probably shall not ship apples in quantity from the state of Washington to rural Ohio when Ohio can raise equally good fruit. Neither will heavy unspecialized equipment, such as cast iron stoves, be shipped from Ohio to the state of Washington.” Those predictions were plainly wrong. Other beliefs of Morgan’s are less likely to be forgiven in the present day: He also endorsed eugenics as a solution for recalcitrant criminality.

But while Morgan may have been off on some topics, he was sharp and forward-thinking on others. For one, he recognized that racial prejudice would haunt the United States until the country guaranteed equal rights for all. And, separately, some modern scholars think he had the right idea about the value of small places as lagoons that feed society’s ocean. “I think that the scale of life does permit kids to feel that they can be engaged in the community in ways that are pretty powerful for them later on in life,” says Steven Conn, an urban and intellectual historian at the Miami University of Ohio (who happens to live in Yellow Springs).

The Rutgers University sociologist Patrick Carr, the author, with Maria Kefalas, of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America, agrees with Conn. “Our work looked at the mechanism of mentorship and nurturing you have in small towns,” he explains. “In fact, most young people we spoke with talked about how in a place like [the town they studied] ‘we kind of feel you are part of something bigger than yourself.’”

Angela McMillan Howell, an anthropologist and sociologist at Morgan State University, and the author of Raised Up Down Yonder: Growing Up Black in Rural Alabama, tells a similar story. In the small Alabama town she wrote about, “there was this heightened level of community engagement.” Since everybody belonged to one of two black churches, youngsters of different economic backgrounds got to know doctors, lawyers, and other prominent people. Many attended a local Rosenwald school, one of a string of schools founded by Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck’s president, Julius Rosenwald, to bring excellent educational opportunities to African American children in the South. “There is a sense of being a big fish in small pond,” Howell says.

There, as well as in the places Conn and Carr are familiar with, some young people moved on to universities and bigger towns and cities, carrying community values with them, adding to the talent pool of the nation’s urban economies, just as Morgan suggested. (Dwight Eisenhower, to name just one example, was raised in Abilene, Kansas, with a population under 5,000 when he was boy.) Ideally, after a time away, some would return to their towns to assume leadership positions there.

Many did, once. Not so much now. Small towns have always risked losing young people for good, but especially after the Great Recession, the American economy has conspired against returners. Economic and agricultural concentration, declining industries, and lower wages aren’t giving younger people much reason to go home. Many small towns are becoming older, poorer, less educated. In Howell’s Alabama town, people stopped returning as the economy, partly based on papermaking and chicken processing, shifted. The Rosenwald school closed for lack of students.

Conn, Howell, and Carr agree that whatever Morgan’s flaws as prognosticator or would-be economist, he was right to fret about the future of such communities. Everyone else should too, Carr insists, because small towns have always been an essential part of America. Small towns and rural areas send a disproportionate number of their children into the military. America’s food is grown around small towns. And as was made clear last year, smaller towns, acting together, can do a lot to elect a president. “In certain parts of the country those towns functioned as the glue that held everybody together,” Conn says.

Morgan, who warned against parochialism, was himself a little parochial when it came to cities. But it’s not an either-or proposition. Cities also contain cohesive, functioning communities. Both Conn and Howell stressed that the supposed dichotomy of “real America” versus the decadent metros—is, and always was, a canard.

“My mom was reared in Baltimore City, in a segregated neighborhood,” Howell recalls. “She was part of a strong social structure, with church, family nearby, all the other community supports you have in a small town. It was like a small structure dropped into a big city.” Her mother went on to become a civil-rights leader. Similar stories could be told of “communities within cities” across the country, from the gay community in New York’s West Village in the 1970s to the Polish community in Chicago before and after World War II.

Cities of course have advantages of their own. They permit a productive collision of ideas that is hard to replicate in less-dense areas, and they serve a psychological use too: Conn paraphrased the architect Louis Kahn by saying that a city is a “place where a young boy can walk down the street and imagine all the things he might become.” Conn added, “Maybe if we begin to recognize these aspects of each of these places in the other we can square the circle a little.”

To Conn, the more important distinction is the one that separates both cities and small towns from certain colorless suburbs. “There is a sense of place that is at risk of being lost,” he believes; the true antithesis to small community might not be the big city at all, but “a kind of alienated suburb that is really the alternative to life in a small town or an urban neighborhood.” He adds, “We are a nation of Walmart shoppers” quickly becoming a nation of Amazon shoppers.

Despite the fact that America has become an increasingly urban nation, however, Carr is optimistic about efforts to support the nation’s smaller places. There’s been a recognition, he says, that communities must adapt or die. After his book, Hollowing Out the Middle, was published, Carr heard from a number of people from different regions, who were trying a variety of rejuvenation tactics. For example, a career academy in Iowa had begun providing training for high-school students, both college-prep and vocational. Elsewhere, educational and civic jurisdictions were pooling resources and asking employers for input about their needs.

But if such initiatives are to succeed, Conn suggests, they’ll have to listen to Arthur Morgan and stay open-minded. Immigrants can boost local economies; small towns should welcome them, not oppose them. Government is not the enemy of small towns, but many in small towns have grown to distrust government at all levels: The TVA, a giant federal project, was largely a success, and so was rural electrification, another federal project. Today, many small towns rely heavily on state and federal money to keep their economies afloat. Resentment of cities, especially the often mistaken impression that cities soak up all the government spending, is counterproductive. Even Morgan recognized that “the village was too small a unit to fulfill the destinies of human society.” The United States needs its cities. But it need its small towns and rural areas, too.