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Nathan BeacomJune 17, 2019
The site of Clemens Field baseball stadium in Hannibal, Mo., near the Mississippi River, on May 31.  (Jake Shane/Quincy Herald-Whig via AP)The site of Clemens Field baseball stadium in Hannibal, Mo., near the Mississippi River, on May 31.  (Jake Shane/Quincy Herald-Whig via AP)

This spring, tornadoes and thunderstorms buffeted a region already suffering from record-setting floods. From the Vermilion River in Illinois to the southern reaches of the Mississippi, and from the Missouri to the Ohio, a vast stretch of the country’s middle has faced a rainy season of Noahic scale.

Buildings and bridges have been washed away, levees have burst asunder, and both towns (like Lupus, Mo.) and farmland in parts of 14 states are underwater. Before the deluge, farmers were already struggling to get by in the face of a multi-year price slump, which has been exacerbated by the Trump administration’s trade war with China. Now thousands have lost homes, grain bins, barns and equipment, and they have been unable to plant anything because of sodden soil.

Before the deluge, farmers were already struggling to get by in the face of a multi-year price slump.

In addition, many towns and cities (like Davenport, Iowa) face huge infrastructure repairs, the shipping industry has ground to a halt on Midwestern rivers, and as rivers crest and flood, the safety of drinking water is threatened. The cost of recovery, including the restoration of levees, is expected to reach $1.6 billion in Iowa alone.

The shock of this disaster has revealed some of the major underlying problems in the Midwest and confronts those of us who live in cities with the question: Do we really care about the struggles of our rural neighbors?

For a disaster this huge, one that extends thousands of miles in all directions and whose ripples will be felt nationwide for years to come, the story has received little attention, often being obscured by the political drama of the day.

In our coastal cities, these troubles may elicit little sympathy, not coincidentally because they are happening in areas that largely went for Donald Trump in the last election. It is easy to dismiss the people who are affected by these floods as tacky, ignorant, prejudiced and too fond of fast food, guns and reality TV.

In our coastal cities, these troubles may elicit little sympathy, not coincidentally because they are happening in areas that largely went for Donald Trump in the last election.

A Catholic must do better. There are issues of social justice and human flourishing here that must be attended to.

These floods are only the most recent of the many ongoing problems faced by rural communities in the Midwest. The news is not bad everywhere: some Midwestern mid-sized cities like Des Moines are prospering, and some rural counties have found ways to adapt to new economic realities. But for the large part, this is a region where smaller communities are losing young people to the cities; where churches and civic organizations are shutting down for lack of membership; where factory jobs are moving overseas or automating; and where there is a creeping rise in mental illness and suicide. Hospitals and medical professionals are moving out of smaller towns, and rural areas are finding it more difficult to access health care and other vital services.

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The agriculture sector, long the heart of the region’s economy, is facing its own challenges. The latest Census of Agriculture shows that farms are further consolidating in the hands of a few large commodity operations, and an increasing share of rural land is owned not by families, but by large corporations foreign and domestic. There is an ongoing problem with the degradation of soil and the quality of waterways, aquifers and wetlands. Scientists fear that this year’s extreme weather is a portent of more dire weather events to come as a result of climate change.

In papal encyclicals like “Laborem Exercens” (1981) and “Mater et Magistra” (1961), the church has lamented that in an urban industrial economy, those upon whom we depend for our food are often forgotten, and it has laid out principles for achieving justice for rural citizens. The vision of the encyclicals is for an economy tutored by a “hierarchy of values” (“Mater et Magistra,” No. 245) that considers the health of community and family life to be a substantive good, and one that considers sustainable treatment of the land to be an ethical imperative (“Laudato Si,” No. 12). “Mater et Magistra” tells us that small farms and businesses must be safeguarded and that co-operatives should be encouraged by tax policy, infrastructure and social services—favoring family farms, rather than tipping the hand toward the large corporations. This framework is rooted in the idea of a universal and inviolable human dignity, with working and living conditions that respect each person as a free, intelligent, creative and responsible being.

But in “Laborem Exercens,” St. John Paul II also described a vicious pattern that begins with a lack of “appreciation on the part of society, to the point of making agricultural people feel that they are social outcasts,” which results in “their mass exodus from the countryside to the cities and unfortunately to still more dehumanizing living conditions” (No. 21).

Some rural citizens will indeed leave their families and communities in search of better job opportunities. But there will always be people living in the country, and there will always be people who need to work the land. Even if a decrease in their numbers is inevitable, we do not have to let the process be as destructive as it is now. To say that rural life must meet a natural death is to make peace with the idea of a perpetual underclass, populated by the impoverished farmers and migrant workers who feed us.

To say that rural life must meet a natural death is to make peace with the idea of a perpetual underclass, populated by the impoverished farmers and migrant workers who feed us.

The church holds that there is something inherently worthwhile about farm life; as St. John Paul II said in Des Moines in 1979, “In farming, you cooperate with the Creator in the very sustenance of life on earth.” And think of the milieu in which the infant Christ was born, where it was an honor for kings to be included in a dusty backwater among farm laborers and their smelly animals. Jesus’ own nativity says of those close to the land: These ones matter, and they are beloved of God.

Those of us who live in cities must make ourselves aware of the struggles of our rural neighbors, and this year’s floods are only the most visible of those struggles. As Catholics, we must heed the church’s call for “ever new movements of solidarity” with those whose conditions of poverty fall short of what belongs to the dignity of sons and daughters of God. Following Christ’s example, it is not enough to express compassion; action is needed. Through the work of organizations like Catholic Charities and Samaritan’s Purse, we can assist those suffering from floods, and through organizations like the Center for Rural Affairs promote policy that is good for farmers and communities. These floods should prompt us to self-examination: Will we, Dives-like, ignore the Lazarus in the countryside, or will we, like Christ, allow ourselves to be moved with pity and lend a hand? We must make an effort to get past political and social differences, and to see instead the shared dignity of the children of God.

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Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Stanley Kopacz
5 years ago

I'm a suburban American but I find the disappearance of rural life, culture and economy to be dreadful. I support giving any assistance possible to them. But it would be easier to achieve if they weren't taken in like a bunch of stereotypical dumb hicks by a NYC real estate con man. Brooklyn Bridge, anyone?

Patrick Lynch
5 years ago

What is the evidence that the Coastal cities are not concerned? Granted little has been done to call people's awareness to this issue in most media outlets including America Magazine. The article presumes apathy over investigating why there is not greater media coverage.

Amy Rosenthal
5 years ago

There was hardly any news coverage outside of the affected areas as it happened, let alone significant assistance other than from other rural areas in the country and most money raised thus far has been in efforts spearheaded by local people or a few prominent individuals with local ties. If even a portion of areas like LA or NYC experienced something this catastrophic, there would be a national outpouring of concern and financial assistance.

Julie A Miller
5 years ago

We can (and do) care about people being impacted by trade war(s) and the extreme weather (which is becoming the norm.) But there's nothing "blue America" can do about their problems, because the Heartland voted for a clique who have other priorities- so far, corporate tax cuts, and “deregulation.” Climate? “It will change back.” Infrastructure? WH stages a Potemkin meeting with Democratic leaders, where president proclaims he wants to spend “3 trillion” to rebuild America. Meeting #2: president stalks in and declares he won't do anything unless he gets immunity from investigation. So who is it again, who lacks empathy for the stricken farm belt?

Denise Delurgio
5 years ago

On topic comments would relate to why we should care about the floods in our farmlands.
But, President Trump bashers, like Stanley, Judith, and Julie, just use any article on America to change the subject to their favorite punching bag.

JR Cosgrove
5 years ago

It’s nice to see America, the magazine, and several of its commenters take up the cause of the most nationalist and threatening country in the world, China. The tariffs the author is objecting to is part of the effort by the US confronting their predatory trade practices. And it seems that many here are all in for China. Also, the economic factors that worsened the small towns is why rural America voted for Trump. Is the author worried Trump is trying to help while the elites of the Democratic Party could care less. Democratic response, bitter clingers and deplorables.

Stanley Kopacz
5 years ago

The cause of the Chinese autocrats following the Tienenmin Square massacre was taken up long ago by all the whore capitalists who poured money and expertise into it for the sake of short term profits. The Chinese totalitarians should be confronted in a long term strategy that minimizes economic harm to vulnerable American constituencies. The spasmodic actions of our idiot president do not count as strategy.

JR Cosgrove
5 years ago

Thank you! You are the gift that keeps on giving.

Two of many writers this author, the editors and other authors of America should read are Thomas Sowell and Victor Davis Hanson. They will help one understand what’s going on.

5 years ago

As a biker in central Indiana with an advanced degree in biology, as I ride past the farmlands, it is disconcerting to see how few agricultural fields are planted as of mid-June in my county, alone (Hamilton Co. IN). We need to remember that without agricultural success, the rest of us will either pay higher prices for food, or maybe, not even have it. What will happen to the poor, who are not be able to afford the basic necessities, food, shelter and medical care. This is, indeed, a major economic and political issue, as well as ecological, even though we, as Christians do not have control over the weather. I wish I could provide answers, but I can't.

Will Nier
5 years ago

The solution is not to build something in a flood prone area. The photo on top is a prime example!!!

Jay Cuasay
5 years ago

I received the following blurb in my America newsletter about this article:
"This spring’s floods devastated farming and rural communities in the middle of the U.S. that were already struggling with economic and social decline, writes Nathan Beacom. But ”blue” America may find it difficult to sympathize."

I read the article quickly, so maybe I missed it--but I don't think the article was necessarily a Blue vs Red state political issue. It seemed more about urban/suburban and about appreciating how the two are related. That seems to be something "Blue" people get in the sense that they are into coalition building and how parts fit the whole.
In any case--again admitting a quick read--I wasn't sure what "blue" indifference (or lack of sympathy) had to do with the topic.

Chuck Kotlarz
5 years ago

Mr. Cuasay, Midwest flood recovery perhaps will suffer the same fate as the New York-New Jersey rail tunnel project to replace aging and flood damaged infrastructure. Advancing the public interest with America's oligarchy perhaps parallels the passage, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle..."


Lisa Weber
5 years ago

I grew up on a farm in the Midwest. I work in a rural area. Many of my co-workers are farm wives. Most of them voted for Trump. I see a significant disinterest in discussing how trade policies have negatively affected farm prices for those who grow soybeans. I see little interest in discussing climate change - and climate change affects farming now. It could affect farming even more in the future if we decide to pay farmers to help take carbon out of the atmosphere by changing farming practices. When a conversation about realities like climate change is impossible to have with those most affected by it, I see little hope for engaging farmers in the process of creating positive change for them. They have be involved. And a fruitful discussion require that they be informed. This will be a long process.

Nick L Unverferth
5 years ago

Throughout recorded weather history flooding has occurred along waterways in the midwest. Flooding of the adjacent fields is the reason that these fields are so remarkably productive: the sediment deposited is the topsoil that allows for the abundant crops. So you can't stop that and even if you could it would be a bad idea. The associated farm towns and cities though do need to be protected with dikes, dams weirs, etc. Some places may simply be too low in the first place. All of this has to be addressed with infrastructure which is either non-existent or has been crumbling for years. DEMS WHO CONTROL THE "MONEY STRINGS" OF THE HOUSE HAVE NOT DONE ANYTHING. WHY NOT?

Robert Helfman
4 years 12 months ago

Critical thinking will help. Clear, contemplative perception of reality, things as they are (in a real, a ZEN sense) will help. For example: a reading of MATER ET MAGISTRA will show that John the XXIII got socialism wrong and unwittingly aligned himself with the emerging plutocracy. There is more to socialism than the kind practiced by atheistic political systems which express a pseudo-socialist agenda, a faux imitation of the real thing.
Then there is SAMARITAN'S PURSE which does good works for the sake of those in need and the Gospel. Franklin Graham is, as son of Billy Graham an evangelical with a Conservative bias politically which includes an unswerving support for Donald Trump. Trump, a social problem in his own right exemplifies that denial of reality which is endemic to the human condition and symptomatic of what ails us as a species.
The remedy is honesty. A capacity to cope with paradox. To look reality squarely in the face and call out falsehood and denial when it is encountered-an intellectual checks and balances as it were. Only then can our culture recover from our collective madness, something we must all, to some extent assume responsibility for.
The old adage still rings true: if you are not part of the solution you are part of the problem. A too literal use of the term SOCIALISM limits its use to contexts limited in their having pejorative connotations (Marxism as expressed in Soviet Communism, the National Socialism of the NAZIS) but there are other contexts more compelling: the early Christian church described in the Acts of the Apostles, Liberation Theology, the host of Democratic candidates emerging for the Presidency among whom are those unafraid to call themselves Socialist. A too literal understanding of the term prevents the creative application of the principles of Socialism which are needed as a check on the runaway capitalism that is the bane of our political and social life.
Considering how JP II bludgeoned those who challenged his authority and attempted to delegitimize Liberation Theology anything he said must be viewed through corrective lenses before it can be taken at face value. Here again a critical view of the history of his papacy is necessary before it is assumed that he may be quoted as an inerrant authority on matters political.

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