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John A. ColemanMarch 12, 2014

Small-Town Americaby Robert Wuthnow

Princeton University Press. 520p $35

Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University is now pretty much the dean of American sociologists of religion. Much like the late Rev. Andrew Greeley, Wuthnow is a very prolific author, penning a book about once a year. All of Wuthnow’s books show a sophisticated methodology that combines careful census and other polling data, standard questionnaires, with more nuanced open-ended interviews to yield a truly balanced view of his topic. Wuthnow is also a very gifted writer.

Small Town America stands out for several reasons. Not much research has looked at the topic since the 1950s. Over a five year period, Wuthnow and his associates conducted hundreds of in-depth qualitative interviews to probe what it means to be a small town resident and to limn the attractions and limitations of living in small towns of under 25,000 inhabitants that are not suburbs or part of larger metropolitan areas. They included samples of towns of under 1,000 inhabitants, of towns ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 and then some larger small towns of 10,000 or more. In all there are about 14,000 towns in the United States with under 25,000 inhabitants that are not part of a more urbanized America. In total, about 30 million Americans live in these small towns. Why do they choose to do so, and what do they find about community living in small towns?

Wuthnow grew up in one small town in Kansas and has lived much of his life in a small town in New Jersey (admittedly, however, a small town in a larger more urban county). I have never lived in a small town and, perhaps, have shared some of the biases against small towns: that in them everybody knows everyone else’s business; they lack the cultural amenities of a larger metropolis; they present fewer opportunities for work and professions. I am always mindful of a friend of mine who lives in Washington, D.C., who told me that growing up in a lovely small town in Montana called Red Lodge, he speculated from about age 8 about where he would end up living. It was clear to him that his hometown had limited opportunities for what he wanted to do: be a psychologist.

Many small towns in America (especially those under 1,000 population) are losing population. Sixty-two percent of towns in America with fewer than a 1,000 residents lost population since 1980. Forty-two percent of towns ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 residents declined in population between 1980 and 2010. One factor in this decline is the decrease in the number of smaller farms in America. There has been a 50 percent decrease in the number of farmers since 1969, and the median age of farmers has been rising.

Wuthnow argues that a sense of community has specific meanings in different sized places. In one sense, in small towns you have to deal with everybody. Two thirds of the people living in a small town have incomes above the national average; some 16 percent live in poverty. Small towns provide feelings of solidarity despite real differences of income and occupational status. Perhaps, if nothing else, all must share the one café in town. The more wealthy are less likely to engage in conspicuous consumption.

One in five residents of small town America have lived in their small towns for fewer than five years (but they may have moved from another small town). Four fifths of people living in small towns grew up in one. People choose to move to small towns for a variety of reasons. Some like the comparative stability they afford, the slower pace, the absence of heavy traffic, the greater intergenerational mixing. For many, small towns are ideal places to raise children. Many also like the fresh air and open spaces. Forty-four percent of people in non-urban America said they knew almost all their neighbors, versus only 14 percent in metropolitan areas. Two thirds said they could count on their neighbors to help them in a crisis (twice the rate found in larger cities).

To be sure, many end up in small towns through unexpected circumstances: financial failure, the illness of an aged parent, lower cost housing that can make small towns a kind of refuge. Small towns are not places to make a lot of money or fulfill certain specific aspirations (e.g., to be a ballerina). Small town residents look for a more balanced life. They may earn less money on average than if they lived in larger cities but trade that off for a focus on families and community.

Churches are more abundant, relative to population, in smaller areas than larger ones in the United States Membership in churches is 50 percent in counties with fewer than 5,000 residents; while only 34 percent in counties over 50,000. Church attendance is noticed, and it is expected of leaders in small communities, who earn respect by their volunteer activities. Churches provide community but also links to the wider community through mission trips. Many cater to mostly older members, and closing churches in small towns is hard.

People in small towns nurture a vivid sense of decline (they may have lost their own school through consolidation efforts). They see themselves as people who work for strong families, who raise their children properly, who work hard and who support one another. They see these values declining in America. They also see themselves as survivors. Pro-life majorities abound in small towns, but there is an ambiguity about government telling people what to do or about overly aggressive pro-life activities. Ninety percent of those Wuthnow interviewed said they knew a gay person; 50 percent pointed to a family member or close friend. They could be tolerant if the gays did not “flaunt it.” Small towns also engage in controversies over evolution versus creationism or the teaching of religion in public schools; but by and large, the people want to be commonsensical, pragmatic, open-minded.

Small town people are against big government bureaucracy and favor local control. They feel they can trust their local leaders (whom Wuthnow finds to be very professional and well educated). Not surprisingly, small towns tend to vote Republican. Yet for all their affection for small town values, parents in small towns are reluctant to force their children to stay. They know, also, some of the shadow side of small towns (like schools lacking in music education or specialized topics).

In the end, Wuthnow argues, small towns are not really a useful general model for community in the United States. Their own communities have a special sense of place, a stronger sense of who belongs and who doesn’t, perhaps more social networks. (Interestingly there are more non-profit volunteer groups in small towns, per capita, than there are in large metropolitan arenas.) Small towns have a viable future but lack the kind of infrastructure that would allow them to coalesce into a larger populist movement. It is unlikely that city folks will heavily repopulate our small towns.

I learned a great deal about small-town America from this book. In a sense, there is no other sociological study of small-town America to equal it. It fills a significant gap in the sociological literature.

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