Great Divide

By Beacon Staff

I’ve written before about going to Helena to testify before the Legislature, or simply to see how our state government works. It’s a pain, but can be worthwhile.

When “worth-a-trip” legislation comes up for a hearing, either good or bad, I always check the other bills scheduled that day, in case a “bonus” can be had.

Last time, there was: HB 520, which proposes “an appropriation of $300,000 from the general fund to the Montana board of regents” in order to study “the growing divide between rural and urban communities,” including forming “a rural-urban institute.”

Due to legislative rules, the funding authority for Senate Joint Resolution 8 (SJ-8), whereas “economic development in Montana is jeopardized by a growing divide between Montana’s rural and urban communities.”

No kidding?

Therefore, the institute would “facilitate ongoing strategic planning […] to overcome the rural-urban divide and move Montana forward as one Montana.” SJ-8 has passed the Senate 39-10.

Now, everyone knows there sure as heck is a rural/urban political divide in Montana, paired nicely with our Eastern/Western divide, never mind our academic/real world divide. But a $300,000 “study?”

How about if I just explain the “rural-urban divide” for free?

We have a rural/urban political divide because city people are clueless about rural affairs. The trouble is, the clueless vastly outnumber the enlightened – a combination of demographics and choice.

First, demographics. As an Army officer at Leavenworth once put it, “How you look at the world depends on where you grew up.”

When America began, only about 3 percent of Americans lived in cities. As late as World War II, half of America still lived in rural areas. But today, about 80 percent of Americans today live in, or grew up in, cities or suburbia.

Because only about 2 percent of Americans currently make a living from agriculture, very few of the other 98 percent have any direct personal connection, either business or family, to “back on the farm,” in the woods, or the mine, the mill – even the factory.

What of the few urbanites with family “back home?” Well, my Dakota grandfather ran a wheat-testing lab in Minot and farmed out by Surrey. He disapproved of my Mom running off to first college, then New York and marrying a singer!

Grandpa’s revenge was to take me out with him to combine the wheat and take it to the elevator his last two harvests, coming back to town plastered with dust and sweat. Mom was horrified. Grandpa just grinned, his teeth blinding white against the crust. It wasn’t until about 15 summers later, while working for a custom cutter in the Conrad area, that I finally understood Grandpa’s smile.

As for choice, my New York grandparents’ front room had a fabulous view of the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. On Friday evenings, a great tidal wave of New Yorkers would flood out into “the country,” and on Sunday night, flood back into Manhattan. Sometimes, we joined the flood.

We’d go to a Poconos hotel, watch a dinner show, shop the outlets, hit the tourist traps, sit around the pool … not once can I recall our family unit ever interacting with any “local” in a personal or non-commercial manner. We could have, perhaps, but never did.

Why not? The weekend was escape time, of course. Thoughts of the rest of the week or an off-season would burst the bubble. Why risk that if you don’t need to?

Before Montana plows $300,000 into this “study” of rural/urban political differences, our Legislature should think hard about whether the study results will have any impact at all upon the real target audience (urban Americans).

So long as food fills the grocery shelves, there’s gas in the car, lumber in the yard, the light switch works, the heat comes on, wolves howl on TV and locals are “friendly,” urban Americans have no reason whatsoever to reconsider their political relationship with rural America.

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