Ours is a common story. For years, rural and small-town America have fought an uphill battle for economic survival. Many in the halls of power viewed the shuttered storefronts and desolate downtowns as the inevitable consequence of globalization and technology, about which little can (or even should) be done. But one major force behind the steep economic decline is something that, until very recently, has received virtually no attention: the unprecedented level of corporate monopoly power that has been concentrated throughout the American economy.
The consequences are wide-ranging and dramatic (one new research paper found that the increase in corporate consolidation effectively transfers $14,000 a year from workers’ wages to corporate profits). But nowhere are the effects more visible than in rural and small-town America. In these communities, corporations dominate local economies to such an extent that people are unable to start their own businesses or sell into markets. They are no longer free to take their labor elsewhere for better pay. Small town businesses and the communities they serve no longer have the power to shape their own economic destinies, which were once vigorously protected by federal antimonopoly laws.
Let’s look at just one indicator — new business formation. From 2010 to 2014, 60 percent of counties nationwide saw more businesses close than open, compared with just 17 percent during the four years following the 1990s slowdown. During the 1990s recovery, smaller communities — counties with less than half a million people — generated 71 percent of all net new businesses, with counties under 100,000 people accounting for a full third. During the 2010 to 2014 recovery, however, the figure for counties with fewer than half a million people was 19 percent. For counties with less than 100,000 people, it was zero.