We’ve all heard that the current administration is hoping to pump $1 Trillion dollars into infrastructure spending in the coming years. This type of rhetoric has been slung by almost every President since I’ve been alive and probably more. “We need to fix our roads and bridges!” often evoking the painful memories of the 35W bridge collapse in Minnesota. Who could be so heartless as to not want to fix a bridge?
These proposals are often innocuous, or at least so vanilla that they are palatable to members of any political affiliation (except members of the Strong Towns party). They also often claim to have bipartisan support or at least aim to.
The problem with these bills is that they are high-level. Drafted almost like there is some kind of infrastructure vending machine that we can throw money into and expect great results. “A billion here, two billion there and maybe a couple hundred million down over yonder.” The reality, however, is obviously far tougher.
This is becoming evident in the tiny town of Waldorf, MN. They have asked the state legislature for $2m (a paltry amount) to fix their near defunct water treatment system. The residents and local officials have already figured out a way to raise $10m to cover the rest of the expenses, the amount they are requesting from the state is the gap. A city of 250ish people, Waldorf’s bill would settle up at around $40k per person (not including the tip.)
However, this begs the awkward question… Why should we pay for this?
On the outside, it’s pretty clear that Waldorf does very little for the state as a whole and that even fixing its infrastructure is probably not going to save it from its inevitable death. It’s not on a railway, it’s not on a river, and it’s not on a major highway, this would be giving a new liver to stage 5 cancer patient.
It’s somewhat in the American ethos to “settle the land” and I think some of that “manifest destiny” ideology has held on for a long time, but a loss is a loss any way you cut the cake. While what they are asking for is small, it simply serves no purpose and benefits a stark minority. This is not taking into account the LGA that the city probably already receives or the subsidies for the highway that appears to serve them alone.
Waldorf is a canary in the coal mine for many Minnesota communities, it’s the victim of the urbanization and suburbanization along with the death of family farms. I actually feel quite bad, I think that small towns just like Waldorf add to the rich tapestry of rural culture that we have in Minnesota, but feelings don’t repair necessary infrastructure.
If we are not going to fix their infrastructure, the question now is does the state resettle them? Does the state owe them, as citizens, money to move somewhere else? No matter your view on what should happen, I think that the Waldorf situation and others like it will raise serious ethical questions in the years to come. Not only about infrastructure and our inability to pay for it, but the real impact it will have on people’s lives.
Featured photo from Lakes and Woods
(Intentionally) Controversial Idea for Discussion: We spend too much subsidizing rural lifestyles. People who live in rural areas should pay the full costs of their choices. They should pay more for roads, utilities, broadband postal service, etc. Because the true cost of rural life is high, only rich people will be able to afford it. Only people directly related to farming need to live in rural areas, so their wages will need to be much higher and they can achieve these wages by increasing food prices, however, higher food prices will be more-than-offset by savings to society when we don’t need to maintain the lifestyles of millions of rural non-farmers. It is cheaper and better for the environment for society to fly farmers to-and-from big cities whenever they feel like it then it is to maintain thousands of tiny towns filled with mostly-non-farmers. End everything that smells like a rural subsidy and let the market sort it out. Why should city dwellers pay for towns full of inefficient ranch-style houses, long commutes and leaking septic tanks? Small towns are a moral hazard.
There’s some extremely strong assertions here that I’d be honestly surprised if the facts would back up:
“Only people directly related to farming need to live in rural areas, so their wages will need to be much higher and they can achieve these wages by increasing food prices,”
Can they achieve those wages by increasing food prices? Or will we wind up simply importing more food from lower-wage countries? At some point the cost curve changes so it’s cheaper to have food shipped in than it is to produce it here, especially if we decide to not indirectly subsidize it. If we reach that point where foreign food is cheaper for most food, what does that do for national security? We’re now even more reliant on other countries for basic necessities.
“It is cheaper and better for the environment for society to fly farmers to-and-from big cities whenever they feel like it then it is to maintain thousands of tiny towns filled with mostly-non-farmers”
Is it? Remember, we not only need to fly the farmers into and out of big cities to do their shopping all the time, we also need to fly people in that want to visit farmers, and we need to still have some way to bring in equipment and materials for farming and get the product raised/grown out to market. Tractors, combiners, and seed don’t just fall from the sky, and corn and cows don’t magically show up at the processing center.
“Why should city dwellers pay for towns full of inefficient ranch-style houses, long commutes and leaking septic tanks?”
Why should rural people pay for cities full of [insert bad parts about cities here]? Addressing the “long commutes” specifically, in the small town I grew up in most people had, at most, a 30-minute commute most days. Many were shorter than that, either working on the farms nearby or the businesses in town (at least two of the three small towns my school district had have some sort of manufacturing place or processing center that employs a decent chunk of the town’s population.)
While I’ve moved to the big city and do enjoy the lifestyle here more, at least at this stage of my life, it’s important to remember that I really do think we need both urban and rural citizens to do what each type of land use does best. Writing off small towns as a moral hazard is dismissive of what they do provide and is no better than those from rural areas trying to use the same rhetoric when talking about large cities.
The question posed by the article is a reasonable question to ask, especially if a small town doesn’t really have any industry of its own, is consistently losing population, and has some major infrastructure bills coming up that the city can’t really afford on its own. That doesn’t make all small towns moral hazards, and it’s frankly offensive to write them off as such.
I wonder how much government subsidy it’s going to take to build and operate an airport where the town of Waldorf used to be, and then to subsidize flights from Waldorf airport to Mankato or Minneapolis. I also wonder about the environmental impact of tearing down all the existing houses in Waldorf and replacing them with new houses in Mankato or wherever. There’s a reason beyond politics the state helps pay for a new water treatment plant every now and then rather than buy out towns.
Fascinated by this topic, especially because of the way our federal legislature (and to a lesser degree, our state legislature) give more representation to rural areas (Wyoming has as many Senators as California). I’d love to read some more perspectives on the ethical, economic, and political considerations regarding appropriations to rural areas: can anyone recommend some reading material?
Matthias, you asked whether or not states owe people in suffering rural towns financial incentives to move away. Here’s a related question: are there any ways that states can create disincentives for people to stay in such towns? (“Sticks,” in addition to “carrots,” if you will?) As you explained, there are economic pressures to leave as infrastructure deteriorates (unless states pony up the money to repair it). Do states have any legal tools to encourage small municipalities to dissolve? Is that a thing?
I don’t know of any such devices that encourage small towns to disappear. I imagine that they would be quite unpopular as there are still some “F”s in DFL and Rural MN is quite Republican.
I think that the next recession (which I’m imagining will be deeper than 2008) will either save these towns, as they will have quite a local economy or completely kill them.
So to answer your question, its anyone’s guess what will happen, haha.
I’ll also throw in that I am quite a romantic for these towns and would hate to see them die.
What’s the actual or potential role and responsibility of Waseca County (population around 20,000) in this?