The Stream

What’s behind rural poverty in the US?

Economic insecurity is on the rise in the rural US, while cities prosper.

The divide between rural and urban areas is as old as Aesop’s fable about the town mouse and the country mouse, where two cousins visit respectively in each other’s homes, and each ends up preferring his own domain. The country mouse runs home after almost being attacked by the dogs of the house. The moral of the story – “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear” – has been taken to mean that the peace and safety of the country, albeit simpler, is better than the insecurity of city life. The differences between city life and country life have persisted through the ages, and perhaps nowhere was this made more clear than in the recent US elections. The role that Americans living in rural areas played in getting US President Donald Trump elected has since been scrutinised and debated.

Studies show that cities are now prospering, and rural areas are in steep decline.  A recent Wall Street Journal study finds that “by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being…In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas). In fact, the total rural population — accounting for births, deaths and migration — has declined for five straight years.”

For decades rural areas across the country have been struggling to recover from the loss of jobs in manufacturing and mining industries as well as farm consolidation and mechanisation. Some Americans living in rural areas say they feel a sense of cultural displacement and a loss of identity that have disappeared with generations of respectable blue-collar jobs in timber, coal mining, and manufacturing. Tom McTague, a police officer in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, told The Stream, “My great-great grandfather was a miner. They had a work ethic that was unreal. Worked all day. There was a bar and church on every corner. Now we are a dead town.” Donald Trump’s anti-global message reinforced the idea that many politicians in Washington DC are out of touch with the needs and values of people in rural areas.    

While true that many rural communities are overwhelmingly white, some of the poorest rural communities in the country are predominantly African American.

We’ll discuss what issues are important for residents of the rural US, and what can do done to address increasing poverty there.

Joining The Stream:

Steven Conn
Professor, Miami University

Jane Kleeb @janekleeb
Democratic Party Chair, Nebraska Democrats

Dorothy Grady-Scarborough
Community organiser, Mississippians Engaged in Greener Agriculture

Tom McTague @regional02
Police officer, Kingston Police Department   

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.