State's rural areas need help

FARMS DISAPPEARING — Louisiana farms are rapidly disappearing, and rural areas are paying a heavy price that demands solutions from the Legislature and statewide public officials.

Louisiana’s small rural towns are hurting while most of its urban areas are experiencing rapid growth. So should those of us who live in metropolitan areas be concerned about our less-fortunate citizens?

I asked myself that question as I read a story in The Advocate about the problems in the state’s rural areas and another one that said, “Bogalusa is slowly dying.” It was then that I remembered something about “being my brother’s keeper.”

It’s a quote from the Bible, and after consulting Google I remembered it is what Cain, who killed his brother Abel, said to God when he was asked where his brother was.

“I don’t know,” Cain said. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Jake Owensby, the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, answered that question in a guest column in the Monroe News-Star.

“Proper education, secure housing, adequate nutrition, and reliable healthcare are not luxuries. They are what is due to those who have worked hard and to those who cannot care for themselves,” Owensby said.

“Each of us is responsible for our own choices and actions. And we are also our brother’s and sister’s keeper.”

State Treasurer John Schroder addressed the rural issue during and after a recent meeting of the state Bond Commission, which he chairs. Tensas Parish requested and received authority to sell $567,000 in bonds, the government’s way of taking out loans.

Schroder is also a member of the Fiscal Review Committee that looked at 16 once vibrant rural towns that are close to collapse. Town businesses lost their customers and residents lost their jobs in the last 40 years because of the way farming has become corporate oriented.

The Advocate said the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 1960 Louisiana had 74,438 farms that directly employed 101,880 workers. More than half the state’s residents

(55.5 percent) lived in or near small towns. In 2017, Louisiana had only 27,386 farms that directly employed 23,019 workers in a part of the state where only a quarter of residents

(25.5 percent) live.

“We lost 60,000 people, my understanding, last year in Louisiana,” Schroder said during the Bond Commission meeting in Baton Rouge. “Where do you think those folks are being lost from? This city grew. The big cities have grown. People are leaving these rural communities.”

State Rep. Danny McCormick, a freshman Republican legislator from Oil City, said, “We’re seeing our small communities die before our very eyes, and we’re not doing anything.”

Mike Strain, state commissioner of agriculture, said, “Rural areas don’t have internet, good schools, high quality health care, and that’s why young people are leaving. And farmers are getting older.”

Kyle McCann, assistant to the president of Louisiana Farm Bureau, said rural residents are having to go to Winnsboro or Monroe to go to the Wal Mart or to visit the doctor or even go to the movies.

The Advocate last July wrote about Bogalusa’s problems. It interviewed Steve Nelson who had worked as a construction worker at the city’s paper mill that had 2,000 employees. Now, there are less than 500 at the mill.

Nelson, who is retired and divorced, has fallen on hard times. He and hundreds of others go to a church-supported food pantry once a month to pick up beans and rice and other staples they can’t afford to buy for themselves.

“It used to be a good place to live,” Nelson said. “People don’t stay much here anymore.”

Financial problems resulted in the district court serving Bogalusa appointing a city administrator on the recommendation of a committee composed of the legislative auditor, the state attorney general and the state treasurer. The administrator has broad powers to raise fees, cut services and run the town as an unelected overseer and reports his findings to those three state officials.

Bogalusa is the largest city with an administrator, and last July there were six others and more than a dozen towns on the brink.

Schroder said he wants legislators and officials to address the decline of Louisiana’s rural regions.

“We do bear a responsibility now that we know,” he said. “You see a pattern. It is our responsibility to try to stop it.”

One way Republican officials can help is to stop disparaging the expansion of Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for poor and low-income citizens that serves many rural Louisiana residents.

State Rep. Jack McFarland, RJonesboro, wants Louisiana Economic Development to take a more active role in pushing industry toward rural areas where prices for property and homes are much lower than in urban areas.

Rep. Francis Thompson, D-Delhi, a longtime lawmaker, said he wants to try and fund a rural development program during the upcoming session. He said rural areas need highspeed internet service and repaired and expanded roads and bridges.

That’s a tall order for a state struggling to meet its own financial needs, but “We are our brother’s keeper.”

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