This is a story you will never find in the mainstream media…

What seldom gets talked about—and when it is, often with irreverent humor and contempt—is the poverty of rural America, particularly rural white America: Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Mississippi Delta, the Dakotas, the Rio Grande Valley, the Cotton Belt.

If you spend time among coastal liberals, it’s not unusual to hear denigrating remarks made about poor “middle Americans” slip out of mouths that are otherwise forthcoming about the injustices of poverty and inequality.

Yet, since the 1950s, Americans living in non-metropolitan counties have had a higher rate of poverty than those living in metropolitan areas. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, the poverty rate among rural-dwelling Americans is three percent higher than it is among urban-dwellers. In the South, the poorest region of the country, the rural-urban discrepancy is greatest—around eight percent higher in non-metro areas than metro areas.

Watch here, as Levi Holstein, 22 explains what Obama’s shut down of the coal industry has done to his community: 

Holstein’s youth was spent hunting deer,turkey and bears,fishing for catfish with his father and riding four wheelers through the hills of Boone County. Now,the mountains he grew to love have been leveled in pursuit of coal,and their debris scraped into the hollow above his childhood home,destroying old haunts.

“I would be the first to tell you I hate strip mines. I hate it,I don’t like it one bit,” Holstein said. “But at the same time it gives a man a job.”

Unfortunately, for 8 years we had a President who was committed to shutting down the coal industry in rural America, where primarily low income white families live.

For Holstein,and many others throughout the region,the changes to the landscape and negative environmental impacts are weighed against paychecks to support their families. However,in the past few years career miners have seen their jobs vanish or move to other parts of the state.

Once the most formidable industry in West Virginia,coal is progressively losing its economic dominance throughout Central Appalachia as production slows due to tightening pollution controls,greater availability of cheap natural gas and growing competition from other coal basins.

From 2007 to 2012 West Virginia’s annual coal production dropped by 31.7 million tons annually,falling over 20 percent,from 165.7 million to 129.5 million. Over half of that decline,17.9 million tons,came from Boone County,which until 2012 had long been the state’s top producer.

So why is the poverty of rural America largely unexamined, even avoided? There are a number of explanations.

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Rural and urban poverty are similar to the degree that both occur when people do not have access to jobs—specifically ones that pay a living wage (i.e. enough to provide themselves and their dependents with basic necessities like food and shelter). Many of the causal factors for poverty, however, are exacerbated in remote areas where the job and labor markets are smaller and less diverse, and communities lack the human capital of city economies. Often a single industry (in some cases single employer) will dominate a vast region.

The geographic distance between some rural communities and higher education institutions, as well as technical and vocational schools, is also a factor. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, 20 percent of non-metro residents complete their college degrees compared to 30 percent in metropolitan areas.

Similarly, when it comes to providing social services in rural America, spatial challenges arise in making those services accessible and visible to a remote public.

“The repertoire of services available to [rural people] is smaller,” Lobao says. Her research indicates that 50 percent of metropolitan counties provide subsidies for emergency medical services, while only 30 percent of non-metro counties do. Similarly, 30 percent of metro counties make elder care available, but only 20 percent of non-metro counties do. And 25 percent of metro counties provide childcare care, but only 16 percent of non-metro countries do. Each of these deficits contributes to the higher rate of poverty that we see among the rural poor.

White poverty, a negative feedback loop

Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, studies the intersection of law and rural livelihoods. She also runs a site called the Legal Ruralism Blog, where she writes about the problem of rural American poverty. Pruitt grew up in a working-class rural Newton County in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas. She tells Rural America In These Times that one important misconception about rural poverty is that it is an exclusively white problem. While the majority of rural Americans struggling with poverty are white, Pruitt says, the racial makeup of the rural poor is far more diverse than the image most Americans realize.


“We tend to associate rural poverty with whiteness,” Pruitt says. “When we think about rural poverty, most associations with rural poverty are with white populations and in fact, that is true to some extent but it’s actually far from being monochromatic.”

The demographics of poverty in rural and urban America are quite similar. Though whites make up the majority of both metropolitan and non-metropolitan populations in the United States—resulting in a higher numbers of whites living in poverty—poverty rates throughout rural America are much higher among the rural minority population. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 40 percent of blacks living in non-metro counties fall below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent of whites. Poverty rates among non-metro Hispanics and American Indians are also considerably higher than they are among whites.

This popular association between rural American poverty and whiteness is key to understanding why the media, and liberal America as a whole, doesn’t talk about rural American poverty. While black poverty in the United States is attributed to the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination, incarceration, and other forms of institutionalized racism, we have no national narrative that explains white poverty. As a result, there is an implicit belief that whites—who have benefited from all of the advantages that come with being white—don’t have a good reason to be poor. In other words, that when whites live in poverty, it is their fault, or even their choice.

Since the 1960s, the current U.S. economic system has had as a constant feature 15 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

“For better or worse,” says Pruitt, “when we talk about poverty, we focus on black poverty, and we focus on Hispanic poverty. We’ve collapsed our nation’s poverty problem into our nation’s racism problem and it leads us to turn a blind eye to rural poverty.”

One of Pruitt’s overarching arguments is that this political polarization between the liberal mainstream and the rural poor is self-perpetuating, and will only worsen with time—as the rural poor are “excluded from the pipeline to power.”

“There is such a disconnect between the people in power in this country and the rural poor. It’s a negative feedback loop,” says Pruitt. “If you’re deciding who you are going to admit to Harvard and you see they grew up socio-economically disadvantaged from rural America, the knee-jerk reaction is, ‘We don’t want those people among us. They’re racist. They’re uncouth. They’re unsavory.’ ”

Though the left has all but cornered the subject of poverty and its myriad dimensions, the fact that rural Americans tend to espouse conservative positions on social issues like abortion and gay rights does not make the liberal media or Democratic candidates any more sympathetic to rural American poverty. And if the 2008 Presidential Election is any indicator, poor rural Americans, especially whites, feel increasingly at odds with liberal politics and liberal candidates.

“I think the assumption is that rural white voters are racist and illiberal and intolerant,” says Pruitt. “And so there are all sorts of incentives to distance ourselves—for the Democratic presidential candidates to distances themselves—from rural whites. I think that most rural white voters are pretty alienated from politics generally, and the Democratic Party in particular.”

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Yet the left and working class rural Americans have many reasons to forge a stronger relationship—specifically in challenging the authority of corporate America and growing the bargaining power of workers. Lobao, clearly frustrated, says rural sociologists have spent a lot of time thinking about how the left could appeal to rural Americans and often find themselves mired in “platitudes.”

“The one thing that we could stress in terms of social values is the value of building community,” she said. “ ‘Do you like your community? Do you want to build it? Well why can’t we?’ We can try to emphasize building the community, you know, because people identify with their community whether they’re Republican or Democrat.” Via: In These Times


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