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The Other Exodus

Urban exodus is nothing compared with what's happening in American small towns.

Stuffed between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, in a fold of land that shares borders with both Missouri and Kentucky, is a town called Cairo, Illinois.

Alexander County, the county to which Cairo belongs, is losing people faster than any other county in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday:

In a nation where more than half of all counties saw population declines during the past decade, nowhere fared worse than Alexander County in far southern Illinois.

Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, the county lost 36.4% of its residents between 2010 and 2020, Census Bureau data released this month shows. No other county lost more than 30%.

The exodus amounted to roughly 3,000 people and lowered the county’s population to 5,240. The declining numbers are putting added pressure on already stressed local government finances and leaving the remaining residents questioning whether there’s any future here. A yearslong plan to revive Cairo’s port may be the area’s last hope.

Not too many centuries ago, this providentially-located town was prime estate for both agriculture and trade. Today, roughly 80 percent of all inland barge traffic in the U.S. passes Cairo, but barges aren’t sufficient to keep a town thriving in the 21st century. Significantly lower taxes in the town’s two neighboring states means there is no gas station in Cairo: The Illinois gas tax is more than double the rate in Kentucky and more than triple what’s charged in Missouri, the Journal reported.

The census data show that population growth—despite the much-hyped urban exodus caused by Covid-19 lockdowns, and a housing market that confirms a scramble for suburban life—is still plodding its usual path, with big counties growing and smaller ones shrinking. Or perhaps it’s too soon to tell of any lasting effects from 2020. In either case, it’s clear that most small towns, especially along the lower Mississippi River, are in worse condition than ever. This region has consistently higher unemployment and poverty rates, as well as lower life expectancy and steady population loss, as the Journal notes.

What’s happening to our towns is not news to most Americans, yet our ruling class seems incapable of offering real solutions. The rallying cry to “shop local” during the bleakest months of 2020 were touching, but hardly a concrete plan to save the brick and mortar of American Main Street. Places like Cairo need more than a stimulus check (in fact, there’s a good case to be made that such forms of government largesse are just digging such towns into an even deeper hole). What’s to be done?

Russia’s Main Street offers one possible solution. Cutting back unemployment is another first step. One thing is certain, that without a swift realignment, there will be little left, if anything, of the once-thriving heartland by the time we’re raising the next generation.

In describing the causes that led to the French Revolution in The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, Alexis de Tocqueville points to metropolitan Paris, and its tendency to absorb more and more of the population, economy, and political attention of the entire country. He quotes Montesquieu: “In France, there is only Paris, together with the remote provinces, because Paris has not yet had time to devour them.” The result is a government with a bloated head, and no life left in its body, ripe for revolution.

Preserving our towns is a project for innovative minds and determined souls, and has as much to do with protecting the delicate balance of republican government as it does the very real problems of unemployment, overdoses, and suicides we see in such devoured towns. Most important, it’s a job for the urgent, as many, like Cairo, may already be beyond repair.

about the author

Carmel Richardson is the 2021-2022 editorial fellow at The American Conservative. She received her B.A. from Hillsdale College in political philosophy with a minor in journalism. She firmly believes that the backroads are better than the interstate, and though she currently resides in Northern Virginia, her home state will always be Tennessee.

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