“He traveled to 2,500 counties (of 3,140) around the country and knew everything from the most common surnames in a given place to the kind of leaves carved above the courthouse steps.”

He was Calvin Beale. The renowned demographer, sage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and lifelong student of rural America, died at age 85, September 1 in Washington, D.C.

(For a story about Beale in the Washington Post, go here; for a remembrance in the Milwaukee paper, go here.)

Beale’s statistical studies of U.S. populations, especially our migrations from country to city (and, sometimes, back again), helped Americans stand back from the flux of 20th century experience, the better to see how the nation was changing.

“He produced the first comprehensive report on Black farmers, chronicling the circumstances that helped generate a massive rural exodus by Blacks from 1920 to 1960.” And in the 1970s, Beale disclosed “the rural rebound.”

He charted U.S. communities along a sliding scale of urbanity-rurality, inventing a descriptive system — commonly known as the Beale codes ““ that the U.S. Census and other federal agencies adopted. He brought to light how prison construction in the 1990s had become an economic development strategy for small towns. And he managed to photograph some 2,000 courthouses across the nation.

Beale’s work with statistics never blinded him to the nuances of American culture. He was, in fact, intrigued with sub-groups like the “triracial” Melungeons of Tennessee and Red Bones of Louisiana, researching both of these and other “isolates.” Specializing in the fates of small towns, he was remarkably sensitized to how “rural” and “urban” cultures were not discrete but overlapping realities.

“In one sense, the changes taking place in rural and small-town areas today represent an urbanization of countryside and village life,” Beale wrote. “This is not to imply that most rural towns have grown to urban size. Rather, there is a more thorough penetration of rural life by amenities, industries, businesses, institutions, communications, programs, laws, styles, family structure, social ills, and stresses and strains that were once regarded as basically urban in nature. It has not been entirely a one-way street. The rise of country music, charismatic religion, and rural based forms of outdoor recreation represents a penetration of urban life by essentially rural values.” (“The Characterization of Types of Non-Metropolitan Areas,” 1981)

Despite such undeniable commonalities among city and country citizens, Beale was sharply aware that rural people stood at a political disadvantage.

“One of the most obvious consequences of small-scale and dispersed population is the difficulty of providing a focus for rural issues. How does a focus of leadership emerge from 13,000 non-metropolitan towns and many more thousands of unincorporated communities and rural neighborhoods? How can the unique aspects of rural issues be kept in mind? How can we avoid imposing urban solutions on rural problems in a nation that is three-fourths metropolitan? Or how can we make the public, the press, and the government even conscious of the fact that many of the problems of the day associated popularly with the cities have rural manifestations equally deserving of attention ““ for example, youth unemployment and chronic poverty?” (“Rural Development in Perspective”)

Hard questions to answer. Beale saw that turning the urban majority to address rural problems had become more difficult than in times past, when “heart-tugging persuaders of pellagra-ridden children, impoverished sharecroppers, down and out rural migrants, gullied fields, and ramshackle housing” had been too widespread to ignore. “Urban self-interest in rural development is also hard to claim,” Beale realized, “now that the cities are no longer being inundated by poor rural migrants.”

So where does that leave rural Americans?

“Rural problems continue to require special focus and tailored programs if their distinctive needs and circumstances are to be addressed adequately, but we must typically rely on special pleading to get the needed support of the urban majority.”

Journalism, like demography, is a kind of pleading.

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