Get them back on the farmland
Senator Byron Dorgan from North Dakota wants to throw a wrench in what he calls the "relentless engine of depopulation in the heartland of our country."
How? By doing what the original Homestead Act did nearly a century and a half ago: giving people financial incentives to live and work in the rural Great Plains.
That a reprise of the 1862 Act is necessary says something about the policies that followed it. After luring people in with a quarter-section of land, we proceeded to chase them out by subsidizing and promoting corporations over families, technology over people, and big over little. Pretty soon, there wasn't much reason to stayÃ¯Â¿Â½so many didn't. Parts of the region, especially the remote, rural parts, have been sliding downhill ever since.
Now, with Dorgan's New Homestead Act of 2003, we'll try to stop that slide and move some of those people back.
The act proposes to help repopulate counties that have seen 10 percent or more net out-migration over the last 20 years. To do that, it will help individuals who live and work for five years in such areas to repay college loans, buy a house, and protect their home values. It will also establish something called Individual Homestead Accounts that help folks save money to start a business, buy a home, get an education, or pay for health care.
To help the business sector in those counties, the act provides a variety of incentives-tax credits, accelerated depreciation, and a $3 billion venture capital fundÃ¯Â¿Â½to locate, expand, or invest in these high out-migration areas.
All of which sounds pretty good.
Joe Dunn, associate legislative director at the National Association of Counties, calls it "a pretty bold plan" that provides "some good carrots."
Chuck Hassebrook, executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb., likes it too. He particularly favors the Homestead Account, which helps people gain assets with which to advance themselves and build their futures. He also likes the 30 percent tax credit for investing in small owner-operated businesses. "We do all these things to subsidize big employers to relocate, but micro-businesses are responsible for the overwhelming majority of job creation in the Plains," points out Hassebrook. "We need to help people start small businesses."
That said, Hassebrook sees room for refinement in the act.
As drafted, Hassebrook indicates, some of the tax incentives could be used to continue subsidizing corporate megafarms and confined animal feeding operations - the exact opposite of what is needed, with their dismal jobs and damage to the environment
Instead, the act needs to better target small business, create locally owned enterprises and keep community members in control of their own futures.
Likewise, Hassebrook believes the act needs to better target lower-income people rather than giving incentives to everyone regardless of need or means.
The banker's kid doesn't need help paying off her or his college loan or buying a house, comments Hassebrook. But the farmer's kid and the waitress' kid do need help.
Will the New Homestead Act pass? Who knows?
Last year's version of the proposed legislation never made it out of committee, and this year's version is competing with a war abroad and tax cuts at home.
Dunn points out cost could be a big hurdle to overcome.
Will it work?
Dunn and Hassebrook agree that it's not the whole answer, but it's a critical piece, a good start in reversing rural decline and revitalizing economies.
At any rate, it's a lot better plan for the great plains than was the last big idea for the region-the Buffalo Commons.
Unless, of course, you're a bison.