Why the Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty

Lauren Kaori Gurley October 22, 2015

In Coalwood, West Virginia, a man stands in front of a trailer being provided free of charge while he makes the necessary repairs to his flood damaged home.

With­in the pop­u­lar Amer­i­can con­science — arguably a close reflec­tion of the main­stream media — there are two favored focal points for dis­cussing the prob­lem of pover­ty. The first is with­in the urban, inner city con­text — often con­flat­ed with black pover­ty — which has held a crit­i­cal role in Amer­i­can polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al dis­course through­out most of the past cen­tu­ry. The sec­ond is the pover­ty of the Glob­al South: Sub-Saha­ran Africa, Latin Amer­i­ca, South Asia, and the rest of the devel­op­ing world.

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.

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

Soci­ol­o­gy and its urban bias

Amer­i­can dis­in­ter­est in the pover­ty of its own pas­toral lands can be traced across the Atlantic Ocean and back sev­er­al hun­dred years to the ori­gins of social sci­ences in acad­e­mia. The rise of these dis­ci­plines coin­cid­ed with the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion and the mass migra­tion of peas­ants from the coun­try into cities. As an effect of these cir­cum­stances, the lead­ing the­o­rists of the era — Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim and Max Weber — were pri­mar­i­ly con­cerned with liv­ing con­di­tions in cities and indus­tri­al­iz­ing soci­eties, set­ting the foun­da­tion for the metro-cen­trism that con­tin­ues to char­ac­ter­ize the social sciences.

In acad­e­mia, there’s an urban bias through­out all research, not just pover­ty research. It starts with where these dis­ci­plines ori­gins — they came out of the 1800’s — [when] the­o­rists were pre­oc­cu­pied with the move­ment from a rur­al sort of feu­dal soci­ety to a mod­ern, indus­tri­al soci­ety,” Lin­da Loabo, a pro­fes­sor of rur­al soci­ol­o­gy at Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, tells Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times. The old was rur­al and the feu­dal and the agri­cul­tur­al and the new was the indus­try and the city.”

Sim­i­lar­ly, the advent of the study of pover­ty in soci­ol­o­gy depart­ments across the Unit­ed States dur­ing the Pro­gres­sive Era cen­tered near­ly exclu­sive­ly on the metrop­o­lis. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s influ­en­tial School of Soci­ol­o­gy uti­lized the city of Chica­go as a lab­o­ra­to­ry for the devel­op­ment of the dis­ci­pline. Accord­ing to an arti­cle pub­lished in Annu­al Review of Soci­ol­o­gy by soci­ol­o­gists Ann Tick­amy­er and Sil­via Dun­can, pover­ty in the city was one of the many social patholo­gies asso­ci­at­ed with urban­iza­tion, mass immi­gra­tion, and indus­tri­al­iza­tion” — issues that were at the heart of the Pro­gres­sive movement.

Lobao explains that around the same time there arose a small,” but vibrant” con­tin­gent of rur­al soci­ol­o­gists at Penn State, Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Madi­son, Cor­nell, Ohio State and Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Cham­paign-Urbana. But the role of rur­al soci­ol­o­gy, she says, has remained per­pet­u­al­ly mar­gin­al­ized, a resid­ual cat­e­go­ry” out­side of the main­stream dis­course. Today, it is not uncom­mon to see rur­al soci­ol­o­gists placed into col­leges of agri­cul­ture, where cor­po­ra­tions like Mon­san­to rule, rather than soci­ol­o­gy depart­ments — push­ing them fur­ther into the recess­es of the social sciences.

The bias is so over­whelm­ing in terms of the urban,” says Loabo, that the rur­al is just sort of neglect­ed and not viewed.” Loabo for­mer­ly served the as the pres­i­dent of the Rur­al Soci­o­log­i­cal Soci­ety at West­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty anoth­er impor­tant hub for rur­al soci­ol­o­gists over the past 70 years. 

A vacant build­ing sits near the side of the road in For­est City, Arkansas. (Bob Nichols/U.S. Depart­ment of Agriculture)

Rur­al and urban pover­ty in America

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.

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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.

Peach Springs, Ari­zona on the Huala­pai Reser­va­tion has a pover­ty rate of over 36 per­cent. (Flickr/​Don Gra­ham)

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.’ ”

The 2016 election

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.”

In the upcom­ing pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, both Pruitt and Lobao don’t see pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clin­ton mak­ing much of an effort to ral­ly rur­al vot­ers. Does either Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clin­ton, as the lead­ing can­di­date, care very much about white rur­al vot­ers? I would say no,” Pruitt said. They’re going to talk the talk, but, by and large, with the num­ber of vot­ers you’re talk­ing about, it’s not nec­es­sary for a win­ing equation.”

It should be not­ed that Clin­ton does list Rur­al Com­mu­ni­ties” as one of the 24 issues on her cam­paign web­site. And in the recent Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate, Sanders attempt­ed to appeal to rur­al vot­ers in his posi­tion on gun con­trol, say­ing, I come from a rur­al state, and the views on gun con­trol in rur­al states are dif­fer­ent than in urban states, whether we like it or not.” Of course, the few min­utes spent on gun con­trol were the only ones in which rur­al Amer­i­ca came up through­out the two-and-a-half hour debate.

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.”

Lau­ren Kaori Gur­ley is a staff writer at VICE’s Moth­er­board on the labor beat. She is a for­mer con­tribut­ing writer to Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times and In These Times intern. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter @laurenkgurley.
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