Confessions of a Coastal Elite - Small Town Exodus

Between the prairie green grass and the South Dakota skies stand a crumbling grain elevator, a strip of abandoned shops, and the detritus of a town forgotten. Okaton SD, once a thriving farming community and railroad hub, now lies deserted only a few hundred feet beside Interstate 90. When the railroad shut down in the mid-1980's and I-90 replaced the road running through Okaton, the few remaining citizens packed up and left, leaving a shell of a town rotting in the endless sea of prairie.  There used to be several restaurants, a gas station, and a grain processing plant in Okaton. Now, the only signs of life are the crows and tumbleweeds. 

Okaton is located in Jones County, where the median age has risen from 41 to 52 over the past decade. In contrast, the median age in Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota, is 33. Jones County is also South Dakota's least populous county, with only 1,006 residents as of the 2010 census. Like many other rural American counties, the population of Jones County has been decreasing steadily since the 1920s, declining by 22.3% between 2000 and 2016. 

While completely abandoned towns like Okaton may be unusual, it exemplifies a much larger pattern of rural flight. As young people flock to cities to pursue jobs and education, the demographics of rural America have become older and whiter. According to The Atlantic, rural areas lost an average of 33,000 people a year between 2010 and 2014. In 2016, just 19% of Americans lived in rural areas, compared to 44% in 1930. One of the reasons for the draining of rural areas is the migration of jobs to more densely populated cities. As the American economy has shifted from agricultural to industrial to technical, automation has replaced many of the jobs that rural areas have traditionally been dependent on. For example, in 1900, 40% of Americans worked in agriculture, and today fewer than 2% do. 

As jobs became automated and fewer people were needed to run farms, rural men and women moved to cities, where opportunities for education, higher pay, and better jobs were abundant. They never came back. 

You can taste the despair in towns like Okaton, the slow death creeping in through the weeds in the sidewalk and the fallen chips of paint. For many of these towns, the only hope of survival is the intelligent promotion of self-employment through technology. However, when surveyed about their county’s economic strife, most residents of Jones County hoped for a return to the past, for a return of the railroad or lumber companies that once ushered in prosperity. However, just like rural dwellers who moved to cities, those jobs will never come back.

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