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.
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.