Moriah, N.Y., is a tiny, sleepy place on the shore of Lake Champlain. Not so long ago, this was a major industrial port. Iron ore carved out of the hills here was packed onto train cars and barges. That iron ore helped build America’s cities, but “then it all came to an abrupt halt,” Tom Scozzafava says.
Scozzafava grew up in Moriah and now serves as town supervisor. He remembers the good times and he remembers the summer the good times stopped.
“1971, the miners — 600 of them — went home for their annual August vacation and they were never called back,” he says.
It didn’t just happen in one town or one state. Beginning after World War II and accelerating in the ’70s and ’80s, rural economists say much of small town America began a painful decline, shedding jobs and losing population. These are the parts of America where voters felt like Donald Trump was speaking directly to them.
“The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” said President Trump in his inaugural address. “Rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.”
Critics pounced on the President’s language, suggesting it was too bleak, too apocalyptic. But rural policy experts like Dave Swenson say it’s pretty accurate for a lot of small town America. Swenson studies rural communities and economic development for the state of Iowa.
“Two-thirds of our 99 counties [in Iowa] have posted population declines,” Swenson says. “Those folks have had to migrate.”
Young people moved away to the cities, main streets dried up. Swenson says people left behind feel angry, humiliated.
“What’s left out in many of these places are the people that were unable to migrate, people who were unable to find new occupations or re-educate themselves into new trades,” Swenson says.
The question now is whether Trump’s policies and ideas can change things, driving jobs and investment and people back to places like rural Iowa or Moriah, N.Y.
Rural experts that spoke with NPR are skeptical. They say taking a tougher line with China or Mexico likely won’t cause a surge of new manufacturing in small towns.
“About 65 to 80 percent of the manufacturing losses in our company are directly related to automation and technology,” says Chuck Fluharty, who heads an organization called the Rural Policy Research Institute.
Those kinds of job cuts can’t be reversed by tariffs or trade deals. Fluharty says what rural America needs is an investment in what he describes as human capital, healthcare and education. He also says small towns need to open their doors to immigrants.
“The rural regions that will thrive in the future are the ones where that diversity is strongly expressed,” Fluharty says.
But efforts to create any kind of path to citizenship for undocumented families living in rural America seem unlikely to move forward.
Rural economists say the new administration could boost some regions in the short term with big investments in infrastructure, roads and bridges. Parts of the country could also see a boom from increased oil or gas production.
Still, most policy experts think the long-term trends hurting small towns — urbanization, globalization and mechanization — won’t change much under President Trump. And if he can’t deliver on his promise to make rural America great again, this could be one of the biggest political challenges he faces.