Peas in a Pod: The “Inner City” and 21st Century Rural America

Steven Conn

It wasn’t that long ago that we talked about the inner city” — those pock­ets of urban Amer­i­ca where pover­ty seemed intractable and social cohe­sion dis­ap­peared — as tan­gles of patholo­gies. The sto­ry went approx­i­mate­ly like this:

Dein­dus­tri­al­iza­tion meant the con­trac­tion and col­lapse of the econ­o­my in urban neigh­bor­hoods like North Philadel­phia and South Chica­go. Which, in turn, led to a mas­sive loss of jobs, par­tic­u­lar­ly among those least able to deal with the eco­nom­ic dis­lo­ca­tion. A whole host of social prob­lems fol­lowed once the pay­checks stopped com­ing: peo­ple lost their homes or could no longer pay the rent; oth­er com­mu­ni­ty insti­tu­tions which depend­ed on those peo­ple with the pay­checks died too — gro­cery stores, banks, hard­ware stores, movie the­aters and more; fam­i­lies them­selves strug­gled and many fell apart; drugs became an appeal­ing alter­na­tive for those who couldn’t see much of a future for them­selves. Those who had the resources and the ambi­tion to get out did. Those who had nei­ther stayed.

Today, rur­al Amer­i­ca has become the new inner-city. It isn’t a per­fect anal­o­gy, of course, but let me play it out a bit because the com­par­i­son might help us think about whether any­thing can be done about these new inner cities.

Start with the pover­ty. Whether you look at medi­an income or per capi­ta income, the poor­est places in the nation are rur­al and they are over­whelm­ing­ly white. Most have been poor for a long time, but their decline falls into a few cat­e­gories. Places that relied on extrac­tive indus­tries — min­ing or timber―saw the wealth they gen­er­at­ed leave, and it isn’t com­ing back. Nei­ther are the jobs. Either the resource has played out, like the cop­per in Michigan’s Upper Penin­su­la, or work­ers have been replaced with machines, as has hap­pened in the coal mines.

Like­wise, the nation’s farm belt has been shed­ding jobs for decades too. Even as steel fac­to­ries in Pitts­burgh closed and the auto indus­try fad­ed in Detroit, agri­cul­ture has become more and more indus­tri­al­ized. It isn’t just that fac­to­ry farms require few­er and few­er farm­ers. As farm pro­duc­tion has con­sol­i­dat­ed, cor­po­ra­tized and takes place on an ever larg­er scale, the local feed shops, grain ele­va­tors and pro­cess­ing plants that depend­ed on a more local­ized farm econ­o­my have gone out of busi­ness too. As too have the insti­tu­tions that used to glue rur­al com­mu­ni­ties togeth­er. Dri­ve down the Main Street of almost any small town in the Mid­west, as I often do, and you’re like­ly to see a town cen­ter con­sist­ing of aban­doned store fronts, social ser­vice agen­cies and antique stores in equal measure.

With the pover­ty has come the pred­i­ca­ble social dys­func­tion. It too has been around for a long time, but the cur­rent opi­oid epi­dem­ic has brought it to nation­al atten­tion. Fifty years ago, hero­in was seen as the scourge of Harlem and Haight-Ash­bury; now it is killing Har­lan Coun­ty, Ky. And with the pover­ty and the despair has come anger, as hap­pened across urban Amer­i­ca in the 1960s. Inner cities erupt­ed in riots dur­ing those long, hot sum­mers; angry rur­al vot­ers took a more destruc­tive route in 2016―they vot­ed for Trump.

But if the sto­ry of rur­al Amer­i­ca and the Amer­i­can inner-city shared some basic pat­terns in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, now they don’t. While cities do strug­gle with their fair share of chal­lenges, urban Amer­i­ca has demon­strat­ed a remark­able resilience over the last 25 years. Pitts­burgh has been trans­formed, and I can’t afford the real estate now in some Philadel­phia neigh­bor­hoods where I was warned as a kid in the 1970s not to walk.

Rur­al Amer­i­ca, on the oth­er hand, remains in depress­ing decline. The pop­u­la­tion of Indi­anapo­lis con­tin­ues to grow, but the pop­u­la­tion of Fayette Coun­ty, Indi­ana has been drop­ping since the 1980s. And it isn’t just that the country’s peo­ple are urban­iz­ing. So too is the econ­o­my. The 450 coun­ties Hillary Clin­ton won account for near­ly two-thirds of the entire GDP. Much of the rest of the nation is suf­fer­ing from that intractable pover­ty we used to asso­ciate with inner cities. So giv­en the demo­graph­ic and eco­nom­ic arrows, can the new inner city learn any lessons from the old?

Let me offer two. First, the urban renais­sance of the last two or three decades has been dri­ven by immi­grants. Yes, thick­ly-beard­ed mil­len­ni­als ped­dling arti­sanal kale cup­cakes in Park Slope, Brook­lyn, have played an impor­tant part in reviv­ing urban neigh­bor­hoods, but in cities from Mia­mi to Wash­ing­ton D.C., to Los Ange­les and New York immi­grants helped keep a num­ber of cities afloat dur­ing the 1980s, and they set the stage for an even greater revival in the 1990s. If large parts of rur­al Amer­i­ca are going to sur­vive at all, they need an influx of peo­ple, and that means attract­ing immi­grants. Need­less to say, xeno­pho­bia and white nation­al­ism are repel­lent forces.

Fur­ther­more, we remain steeped in a cul­ture that believes real Amer­i­ca” is rur­al Amer­i­ca, that sees small towns as the guardians of our trea­sured virtues, and that equates pover­ty and fail­ure with urban and black. Yet today it is rur­al Amer­i­ca that is dying and in every mean­ing­ful and mea­sur­able way. Some of the anger roil­ing the poor­est places in the coun­try stems from the con­tra­dic­tion between the myth of rur­al Amer­i­ca and the real­i­ty of people’s lives there.

Things aren’t liable to get much bet­ter in rur­al Amer­i­ca unless it can con­front that myth hon­est­ly. As the cliché goes, the first step in solv­ing a prob­lem is to admit you have it. Anger isn’t much of a foun­da­tion upon which to build a bet­ter future.

(“Is Rur­al Amer­i­ca the New Inner City?first appeared in the Huff­in­g­ton Post and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.)

Steven Conn is the W. E. Smith Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Mia­mi Uni­ver­si­ty in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of Amer­i­cans Against the City: Anti-Urban­ism in the 20th Century.”
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue