Seven Ways Life Has Gotten Better in Rural America


Rural America is taking a beating in the news. Part of it is deserved. I grew up in rural Indiana and am shocked at some of what is going on there: severe hard drug problems, HIV outbreaks, serious crime, etc.

Things are a long way from when I was a kid there in the 70s and 80s and people not only left their doors unlocked, they left their keys in the car.

While I don’t want to minimize the challenges facing rural America, there’s a lot that has flat out gotten better since I first moved to Harrison County in first grade around 1976.

The county where I grew up got a casino that spins off huge amounts of cash. So it’s not the norm. But even excluding everything that happened after the casino arrived, here are seven ways life has gotten better there.

1. Water service. I laugh when urbanites brag about watering their flowers with runoff they caught in their “rain barrel.” That’s what we drank growing up. No city water service was available, so you had no choice but to dig a well or have a cistern. We had a cistern that was filled with rainwater from our roof. In your cistern raw low, there was an actual industry of people who would come refill it from a tanker truck. Today, people where I grew up have access to water service if they want it.

2. Trash service. Similar to water service, there was no public or commercial trash pickup when I was a kid. You had to throw food scraps to animals and burn your trash in a 55 gallon drum. When it filled up with tin cans and the like, or if you needed to dispose of a larger item like a TV, lots of people had their own dumps on their property. Today you can get commercial trash pickup if you want it.

3. Private telephone lines. Believe it or not, when I was a kid we had a party line. That means multiple families shared the same phone line. If you needed to make a call, you’d pick up the phone and find out if your neighbors where using the line before dialing. You couldn’t get a private line unless somebody who had one died first. Somewhere along the way, the phone company put in an upgrade and you could get a private phone line. (On the downside, it’s no longer possible to dial people in town using just four digits anymore).

4. Paved roads. The road we lived on was gravel when I first moved there. Most roads in the county were paved, but quite a few were still gravel. Today the roads are all in amazing shape because of the casino, but even before then my road and others were paved using a technique called “chip and seal.” Basically this involves spraying some kind of tar on the road, then covering it in fine gravel, which is compacted into a paving surface. No more massive clouds of dust.

5. Satellite TV. When I was in high school in the 80s, cable was starting to get big. People where I lived might have wanted their MTV, but they couldn’t get it. There was maybe cable TV in the county seat (I’m not sure). But most folks were stuck with 4-5 over the air channels showing I Love Lucy reruns. Today, thanks to satellite TV, people in rural America have access to every channel you can get in town.

6. Internet Service. The web hadn’t even been invented back in the 70s and 80s. The internet was a small, government and academic network. Today, there’s pretty wide broadband availability through either some kind of DSL type service or satellite internet. My father has satellite internet and it works pretty good if you ask me.

7. Amazon, Apple and Netflix. Speaking of the internet, this provided access to everything from designer clothing to pretty much every book ever published. The days of needing to be in a big city with a cool indie record store in order to get good tunes is over. You can now get access to products people in Chicago couldn’t dream of when I was a kid.

Actually, I could list a whole bunch more things besides these, but I want to be sure not to include anything that might have come from casino money. And I see all kinds of interesting things that were probably never there before in other small towns I visit, such as good coffee shops.

Not that long ago you were in a sense cut off from the world if you lived in a rural area. Today that’s not the case in many places. I’m not going to claim life is perfect in these areas. They have big, serious challenges. But in a number of ways life has just plain gotten better in rural America in the past two to three decades.

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.

Photo: The house Aaron grew up in.


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When I lived in a NJ suburb, we asked the operator to connect us.
Dialing came later and I hated it.

Dave Barnes