Worried about your Local Economy?

I’m stealing a couple tidbits of Cory Allen Heidelberger’s post this week on The Madville Times. These statistics came from a recent Northwest Area Foundation/Lake Research Partners Report entitled “Community Perspectives on Poverty Among Adults in South Dakota.”

  1. 50% of us rate our local economies as “only fair” (33%) or “poor” (17%).
  2. 58% of us are worried that our local economies will get worse this year. Rural folks are the most pessimistic among us, with 65% worried about worse local economic times ahead.

As I commented on Cory’s post, I do not think that our local economies must necessarily follow the same downturns as the national or global economies do. I would even argue that especially in a place like this, a strong local economy might have to be de-coupled in some ways from the national economy in order to thrive.

South Dakota has long been treated as a “colony” of the coasts, and of the world. We export our raw materials (mostly agricultural in nature), and they are manufactured and trucked back to us, with little of the profit going into the pockets of those working to “extract,” or produce those materials.

While this relationship does fuel a large part of our state’s economy, there is certainly room, and I would argue room must be made in our state for smaller-scale economies that sustain us–give us work and provide us with the fruits of those labors without having the middleman (or woman) siphoning off most of the profit. In my own mangling of the poet-philosopher Utah Phillips’ words: “selling our own stuff back to us for the sake of a greasy buck. That’s dumb.”

Another issue I see working in these small “colonial” towns is the local economic development organizations whose members would rather feather their caps with the “accomplishment” of bringing in the latest shiny new Mall-Mart than to engage in the messy and difficult process of encouraging dozens of “little guys,” which is what they ought to be doing. But, you know, that’s hard work.

There is unfortunately less glory in fostering and boostering small local businesses, though these small businesses will likely contribute more over time to the stability and sustainability of the local economy than their big-cardboard-check-and-a-photo-op competitors.

I hope that the concerns recorded in this recent report will translate into positive action that alleviates them. The best action you can take if you’re worried about your local economy is identify ways in which you can focus your everyday spending to best benefit the local economy. That doesn’t mean you can never go to WalMart, but it does mean taking stock of your everyday needs and looking around your community for options and investments.

Because I am a farmer and I grow food, my focus is generally on what’s to eat. Your town may or may not have a few different chain restaurants, but it likely also has a local diner or cafe or pizzeria. If you’re worried about your local economy, then focus your spending toward the mom-and-pop operations instead of Big Brother’s conglomerations.

Really, in terms of local economies, everyday spending is what counts. While a “field trip” to the farmers market is a start, marking your calendar and making a point to shop there first, every week of the season, is a real investment that pays off–for you and the farmers and the local economy.

During a local food talk on campus a couple months ago, I started a diagram mapping where money goes when spent at a big chain grocery store vs. my farmers market table. The diagram of the chain was fairly simple–a little money for labor stayed local, the rest left the community. On the other side, the whiteboard was a complexity of arrows and circles, illustrating what can happen when a citizen spends money at a local business that, in order to better survive, supports other local businesses.

That small-town economic complexity is the key to local economic survival. Economic developers that cut ribbons and smile for the camera and bring in the big chains are whistling through the graveyard of the local economy–sure, they’re developing all kinds of economies–by draining the resources of their own.


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