Over the last several years, it's become clear that there are many competing visions for how the northwest Arkansas region is going to grow. Often when I see these ideas pop up, or see the projected population increases, I start to wonder if those in "the know"--the folks that run the area councils, or the think tanks, or get excited about new bike trails-- really know much about these counties perched on the edge of the Ozarks.
My worry comes from the fact that I'm a historian and I'm from the Ozarks--my family has been in the Arkansas hill country for five or six generations (it's a little unclear), and over this span of time we've watched the region evolve. That's why I can say that, at least here--and I'm not speaking for the other regions of the state--the animating problems in the Ozarks revolve around the legacies of losing the region's rural communities in favor of an extractive and exclusionary globalism, the growth of inequality, and reactionary politics on both sides of the aisle--all of which are masked by a boosterism that appears to ignore reality.
What do I mean by this? Well, in the last few decades, the fleeting wealth created by global corporations like Walmart has hidden a legacy of loss for the Arkansas uplands, making it difficult for many to believe that globalism can indeed be beneficial--especially when we're told that we as a community aren't needed, displayed best by a recent campaign to attract people here that promises $10,000 and a bicycle.
This image is incomplete, however. Because of efforts like this, and the millions of dollars funneled into the region by the Walton Foundation and its partners, Ozarkers look more prosperous, stable, and well-positioned to meet the future than ever before. But are we? I wonder.
The Ozarks is generally a rural and remote region, and following the trend of much of America, since 1950 farm numbers have plummeted by 59 percent. Certain sectors--like dairy--within agriculture have dropped by 99 percent. As these farms disappeared--and with them the small towns they surrounded and supported--the region's urban and semi-urban populations boomed as outsiders flocked to Walmart, or Tyson, or the University of Arkansas.
As farms folded, land values have jumped, and folks on the fringes are pushed into troubling employment at places like those listed above--all three of which have troubling histories of how they treat and pay their respective work forces.
This shift paved the way for a new story in the hill country, one defined by globalized progress and corporate ambition. This prosperity, however, is only true for the upper ranks of Ozark life.
ALICE studies (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) show that the projected image of prosperity falls far short of reality. The cost of living in Arkansas has grown by nearly 32 percent since 2010, and over 60 percent of jobs in the state are hourly. In the counties where I live and work, around 40 percent of households qualify as ALICE and an additional 15 percent are at or below the federal poverty rate.
The impact of this is that many of the state's households are unable to afford basic needs despite being employed. For minority communities, the story is even worse. The pandemic has highlighted just how unjust the region's economic and racial structures have grown--and they weren't great to begin with. Just ask the town of Harrison.
All of this is problematic enough, but a further point is useful. This type of community change--rural decay coupled with corporate extraction and an expansion of inequality--has fueled the expansion of a strong anti-federal, anti-outsider ideology in corporate boardrooms and back hollers alike. To be fair, this existed before but, as historian J. Blake Perkins has shown, it manifested in very different ways.
Now, however, the Ozarks are home to a rough brand of conservatism, best seen in the actions of the fellow from Gravette during the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
These aren't the only issues facing my place, and they may not be the most important. But I would argue that for those seeking to rebrand us as a mountain-biking destination or an engine of social entrepreneurship, looking at the small communities struggling to hold on in the Ozarks who bear the brunt of the big ideas is crucial.
As I teach my students: Context is king. We can't understand why things are the way they are if we don't zoom in on real places, not stereotypes, and ask better questions--and we must listen, even if we don't like what we hear. Hopefully then we can start to find solutions for all of us.
Jared Phillips teaches on rural development, human rights, and food security at the University of Arkansas in the International and Global Studies Program, and is the author of "Hipbillies: Deep Revolution in the Arkansas Ozarks."