Rural America is vast and undefined—a land of corn and soybeans, John Deere, Andy Griffith, and romantic notions of the past. In the last century, a great migration of Americans left the family farm for better-paying jobs in urban communities where industrialization offered a higher standard of living. Continued mechanization of farming reduced job opportunities for rural workers. Fields once farmed by 100 workers are now farmed by one. Foreign competition ensures low commodities pricing while the cost of diesel fuel and fertilizer skyrocket. Somewhere in all of this change, people gave up and the family farm disappeared, taking with it the underlying reason for rural America to exist. Businesses closed, banks sold, churches boarded up, and buildings were abandoned. Rural America changed from a land of family farms and related businesses to a “fly-over zone.”
Rural America stands at a crossroads. One road allows years of relentless deterioration to overcome us because the solutions are too hard, take too long, or just aren’t possible. The other road refuses to give up on a vast and proud area of our country where people of quiet dignity live and where America was born.
Southern Bancorp’s part of rural America is the Arkansas/Mississippi Delta. This racially diverse and challenged area is the home of cotton and soybean farmers, the Mississippi River, and a deep history of blues music. It is also one of the poorest regions of the United States, where poverty rates exceed 30 percent, unemployment exceeds 15 percent, and a third of the population has not graduated from high school. Over the last 50 years, the many redevelopment efforts and economic programs—both governmental and private—have focused on the region, pouring large amounts of money into the Delta. The single commonality among all those efforts is failure. With each additional failure, the self-worth and hope of Delta residents decreases. Well-intentioned organizations conduct focus group meetings, reports are prepared, promises are made, and nothing changes. The downward cycle continues.
The strength of people who live in small-town America, their love for their communities, and a willingness to do almost anything to preserve the place that generations of their families have called home can break that cycle and overcome the challenges.