Monday, January 2, 2012

An awfully rosy portrait of rural Iowa

A front-page story in today's Washington Post paints a very rosy portrait of Washington, Iowa, population 7,135, in the southeast corner of the state. Here's an excerpt from Eli Saslow's story, which contrasts how good things are in this Washington, with the bleak national portraits painted of Washington, DC and the nation by those vying for the Republican nomination for President:
What could be better at the beginning of 2012 in this other city called Washington, a rural town of 7,200 surrounded by the corn and soybean fields of eastern Iowa? This is the Washington with a 4 percent unemployment rate, with record-breaking hog and cattle production, with a new high school and a $6 million library, with a newspaper that doesn't bother to print a crime blotter, with heated sidewalks in front of the bank so customers never have to walk in the snow.
In fact, Washington is not "rural" by official U.S. Government measures, one of which sets the threshold for a rural place at fewer than 2,500 in population. Furthermore, Washington County--of which Washington is the county seat--is part of the Iowa City, Iowa Metropolitan Area. No mention is made of population loss, with which the midwest is so oft associated; indeed, Washington County's population grew about 5% in the past decade.

Never mind those so-called ecological measures of rurality. The place Saslow depicts certainly sounds rural, marked by lack of anonymity and an informal way of handling problems--problems like missed loan payments. The bank official who is the focus of the story, 62-year-old Keith Lazar, tells of how he has learned lessons regarding these matters. He recalls how, several years ago, he initiated the seizure of 25 cattle and 365 hogs from a farmer who defaulted on a loan. The seizure took seven trips, and the farmer watched from his porch for its duration. It was very tense. The banker felt awful the next day, and he hasn't handled problems the same way since.

Now Lazar abides by the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The bank manager now grants a payment extension on a small business loan to a customer encountering a sudden turn of bad luck.

Saslow suggests a link between such policies and success of Lazar's bank, which was established decades ago. The bank has had a great fiscal year, with $2.7 million in profits for 2011, $1.5 million being paid in dividends to the bank's 430 shareholders (many of them local) and $300,000 in bonuses to staff, "including greeters and tellers without college degrees." In fact, only 17.9% of Washington County's residents have a bachelor's degree or higher--about 10% below the national average. That's about the only measure by which Washington County looks less salubrious than the nation, though. Consistent with other rosy economic metrics, especially for a county with such a small population, Washington County's poverty rate is 10.9%, well below the national figure.

And the story does refer in passing to less affluent members of the community who are also bank customers, noting one seeking a loan for a mobile home. Part of the story's message--whether an accurate depiction or not--is that folks who live in mobile homes, too, are members of the community--able to pop into the bank manager's office.

Finally, the story touches on the role of civic institutions in communities like Washington. Saslow explains that folks in the Kiwanis Club--including the middle school principal, the dentist, the sheriff and the hospital president--would rather "pitch in a few $20s than raise taxes or rely on government to fix their problems." So they "solicit community improvement donations"--which they've used in the past to fund a weight room, a park fountain, and a bandstand.

Can life really be this good? Who's to be trusted to enhance our quality of life? the "state" or our neighbors? should the answer vary from rural to urban?

One thing is clear: Saslow's depiction of "rural" Iowa reflects the "love" end of our nation's love-hate relationship with rural America. But I'm always skeptical of the accuracy of any depiction of rurality that is so clearly love or hate.

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