Lauren Gurley, In These Times - 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,” [ says] Linda Loabo, a professor of rural sociology at Ohio State University.
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.
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.
Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, studies the intersection of law and rural livelihoods. . . . 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.
.. The demographics of poverty in rural and urban America are quite similar.... 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.
... 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.”