The Pseudo-Mystery Of Small Towns That Aren’t Dying: Federal (Science) Funding

Over the weekend, the Washington Post had a story where the real lede is not only buried, but contradicts the theme of the story. The author visits Hamilton, MT, and wonders how this small town (population less than 5,000) could transplant its miracle. But the story stumbles around and even discusses the reason why this town hasn’t died without even recognizing the obviousness of it (boldface mine):

Yet Hamilton offers no obvious formula for success that could be transplanted to the half-empty rural communities that have yet to fully recover from the Great Recession. Other communities could emphasize educating their workforce. But some advantages, including a largely recession-proof federal facility and stunning natural surroundings, aren’t available everywhere. Hamilton’s endurance instead only highlights the challenges confronting the nation’s endangered small towns.

It’s the federal facility, stupid. The Rocky Mountain Institute, an infectious diseases institute which has been in existence since 1928, employs 450 people. A GlaxoSmithKline facility that makes an essential additive for vaccines (see the connection?) employs somewhere around 200 people (as of 2011). As a percentage of the workforce, federal employment through RMI alone is 21%, and the GSK facility contains about nine percent of the entire workforce.

To put this in perspective, 27 percent of the District of Columbia are federal employees, and less than eleven percent of the D.C. metro area are federal employees. There’s no mystery here: the federal government is a good provider of high paying jobs, especially in areas of low housing costs. Hamilton is just remote enough to contain much of the day-to-day spending too, so that federal money gets funneled back into the local economy, but not so remote that it suffers economically (i.e., airports and universities are within driving distance).

It’s just the politics of de facto anti-austerity. And it wouldn’t be hard to replicate, if we were willing to spend some damn money.

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