February 9, 2005
Keeping Iowa's Young Folks at Home After They've Seen Minnesota
By VERLYN KLINKENBORG
Lately the Iowa Legislature has been trying to find a way to solve a basic problem: how to keep young people from leaving the state. Right now, Iowa's "brain drain" is second only to North Dakota's. The Legislature is toying with a simple idea, getting rid of state income tax for everyone under 30. This proposal was front-page news in California, where most of Iowa moved in the 1960's.
Let me translate the economics of this plan. The State Legislature proposes to offer every young tax-paying Iowan a large delivery pizza - or its cash equivalent, about $12 - every week of the year. But smart young Iowans know this is only an average figure. The more you earn, the more state income tax you save.
If ever there were an incentive to earn your first hundred million by the time you're 30, this would be it. Never mind that South Dakota, right next door, charges no income tax no matter how old you are.
Of course, there are serious questions about financing this tax break, which could cost as much as $200 million a year. The best bet would be to require young people to spend their dole on the Iowa Lottery.
Iowans are resolutely practical about such proposals. One state legislator, quoted in The Minneapolis Star Tribune, said: "Let's face it. Des Moines will never be Minneapolis." He might have added that Council Bluffs would never be Kansas City. Another Iowan, when asked what the state needed to keep its young people, said, "An ocean would help." This is the kind of big thinking Iowa has always been famous for.
But $600, the average yearly state income tax for Iowan 20-somethings, is not enough to undo decades of social erosion. The problems Iowa faces are the very solutions it chose two and three generations ago. The state's demographic dilemma wasn't caused by bad weather or high income taxes or the lack of a body of water larger than Rathbun Lake - an Army Corps of Engineers reservoir sometimes known as "Iowa's ocean." It was caused by the state's wholehearted, uncritical embrace of industrial agriculture, which has depopulated the countryside, destroyed the economic and social texture of small towns, and made certain that ordinary Iowans are defenseless against the pollution of factory farming.
These days, all the entry-level jobs in agriculture - the state's biggest industry - happen to be down at the local slaughterhouse, and most of those jobs were filled by the governor's incentive, a few years ago, to bring 100,000 immigrant workers into the state.
Business leaders all across Iowa have been racking their brains to think of ways to spur economic development. But nearly every idea leaves industrial agriculture intact. That means a few families living amid vast tracts of genetically modified soybeans and corn, with here and there a hog confinement site or a cattle feedlot to break the monotony.
People love to blame the death of America's small towns on the coming of Wal-Mart, but in Iowa, Wal-Mart is just a parasite preying on the remains of a way of life that ended years ago. Every farming crisis - they seem to come at least once a decade - has shaken a few more farmers out of the business, consolidating land holdings and decreasing the rural population that actually depends on small towns to do business in. The complex connection between town and country that characterized the state when I lived there has long since been broken.
There is not enough life in the small towns of Iowa to keep a young person, and there is no opportunity on the land. The state faces an excruciating paradox. It can foster economic development of a kind that devours farmland - the sort of thing that is happening around Des Moines. Or it can try to reimagine the nature of farming, with certain opposition from farmers themselves and without any help from the federal government, which has fostered industrial agriculture for decades.
I used to joke that Iowa's two leading crops were rural poverty and crystal meth. But it's not a joke. The fact is that Iowa is a beautiful state. Minneapolis isn't that far away. Iowa would be a great place to live, if only the air and the water weren't polluted and you could be sure you wouldn't find yourself living next to 10,000 sows in a hog prison. There was a time, well within my dad's memory, when Iowa's agriculture was diversified and when the towns were rich in a culture of their own devising.
I grew up in the latter days of such a town, and I find it hard to imagine a better place to have been a kid.
My family moved away from Iowa in 1966, for reasons that had to do with my mother's health and not with economics or even the decline in pheasant hunting. I'd like to say I stared out the rear window as we pulled out of town, watching the state of my boyhood recede, but I didn't. We were going to California, which trumps Minneapolis. I was lucky to leave before I knew I would need to.
P.S. If you ever have the chance to take a class with Kris over in geography, jump at it.