The nation’s 15,000 small towns are sometimes portrayed as idyllic places that are “the real America” and sometimes as dying communities to be escaped at the first opportunity, said Wuthnow, the Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Social Sciences and a professor of sociology. Too often missing from the discussion, he said, are the voices of small-town residents themselves.
That’s part of the reason Wuthnow undertook a research project that included interviews with more than 700 people in small towns around the country and analysis of Census and survey data. Results of the research are detailed in a book, “Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future,” released this month by Princeton University Press…
“[This issue] matters mostly because any segment of the population, especially one that includes some 30 million people, is one that we need to understand, whether we are attracted or not attracted to small towns,” Wuthnow said. “My main hope in doing this project was first of all to encourage greater understanding of the variety of small towns, the complexity of small towns and secondly to engender a certain degree of respect so that there was an appreciation of what small towns have to offer.”
Wuthnow said there’s reason for optimism about the future of many of those towns, pointing to the resilience of their residents, opportunities for small-scale economic development and lower cost of living.
“A lot of people have predicted the death of small towns. It is true that many small towns are declining, especially if they have already become quite small or already were declining. My view is a little more mixed than that,” he said. “There is also a social resilience in small towns. A town of anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000, up to 10,000 people is likely to do pretty well. I would predict that in the next 10 years or 20 years there will still be at least 30 million people living in small towns.”
If the population remained around 30 million in small towns, the proportion of Americans living in small towns would still decrease, suggesting small town life is still declining in the United States. Additionally, this means less political representation. At the same time, Wuthnow is right in suggesting that small towns still play a large role in American life. See this earlier post about how American live in an urban society but still are tied to small town values. I still think the suburbs are often about combining the ethos of a small town – smaller population, community participation and volunteering, safe for kids – with the amenities of urban areas which include a range of jobs, access to social and cultural events, and a measure of anonymity or degree of choosing compared to small towns where everyone knows everyone else (also see this earlier post).