Overton: The Internet won't save rural Iowa


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After a long wait, we may soon get to welcome parts of rural Iowa to the late-20th century. Gov. Terry Branstad has decided that the state cannot let our fellows in the vast Iowa hinterland continue living in the dark ages, before the advent of the almighty Internet. Branstad’s new initiative asks the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Advisory Council’s Broadband Committee to develop legislation to improve access, adoption, and use of high-speed Internet.

If you’re a small town trying to attract jobs in a globalized economy and decent Internet access is unavailable, you really don’t stand a chance in hell. Apparently dial-up Internet is still used in some parts of Iowa. According to the 2012 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll conducted by Iowa State University, 11 percent of farmers used dial-up Internet. Although that isn’t a lot of people in general, we’re talking about dial-up: that’s like riding a stagecoach down I-80 to get across the country.

Many Iowa businesses — 22,000, according to a 2011 survey by Connect Iowa — do not have broadband access. These businesses on average make just one-fourth of the income of connected businesses. This surely discourages firms from investing in parts of rural Iowa. Although this is a good initiative, it’s important to avoid overstating its implications.

The Internet’s a powerful tool, but it won’t magically fix all of rural Iowa’s problems. Its economy is one of a bygone age. Large corporate farms have gobbled up smaller ones. Mechanization and outsourcing have ravaged a once robust manufacturing sector.

Rural Iowa, like much of the Midwest, provides a vast reservoir of low-skilled, less-educated workers who will work for relatively low wages because the cost of living is fairly low. There are jobs for people like that, but they’ve gone to China, India, Bangladesh, and other parts of the developing world where workers are willing to work for much less than their American counterparts. The nature of the economy is changing — drastically. There was a time when you could get a decent job with only a high-school diploma. That time is fading quickly. The economy is increasingly divided between low-wage service jobs with few to no benefits and higher-wage jobs that often require college degrees.

A data brief from the National Employment Law Project showed that even before the recession, mid-wage jobs were disappearing while high- and low-wage jobs were growing. Then mid-wage jobs got hammered and have barely come back at all. And those lousy low-wage jobs are on the rise. Without good jobs, people will leave rural Iowa. And they have been leaving. For a century. Since 1910, huge swaths of western and southern Iowa have lost more than 20 percent of their population, according to a report from Iowa State University. Virtually all of the state’s growth has been in metro areas.

Rural Iowa may not be completely doomed. Some midsize towns have maintained stable populations and small towns within commuting distance of cities may make it. Some can survive. But without an educated population, high-paying employers probably won’t want to invest in rural Iowa. It seems that rural Iowa may leave its dark age of poor Internet access while continuing its other dark age of economic decay and depopulation.

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