Why the Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty

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Why the Left Isn’t Talking About Rural American Poverty

'Since the 1950s, Americans living in non-metropolitan counties have had a higher rate of poverty than those living in metropolitan areas.'

By Lauren Gurley | Originally Published at In These Times. October 22, 2015, 9:45 AM | Photographic Credit; 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. (Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo)

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.

Vacant Building, Arkansas

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.

“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 36 percent poverty

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 Gurley is a Fall 2015 editorial intern at In These Times. She has previously contributed to the American Prospect, Quartz, and the South Side Weekly. She graduated from the University of Chicago in June 2015 with a degree in Comparative Literature. You can follow her on Twitter: @laurenkgurley.

This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank In These Times and the Author, Lauren Gurley for their kindness, research, enduring energy, and exceptional reporting.



  1. Isbel McKenzie January 13, 2016 at 4:37 PM - Reply

    There are hundreds of agencies and organizations working on rural poverty, I’m surprised you don’t know of them. Wow. I could, right off the bat, think of 10 in our state alone. The Rural Organizing Project, for one, doing amazing work for poor whites. And many, many more in Southern states where poverty is highest. Author needs to do her homework.

    • empathy January 13, 2016 at 5:10 PM - Reply

      Dear Isbel McKenzie..

      I am sincerely befuddled. You write and I quote

      “There are hundreds of agencies and organizations working on rural poverty, I’m surprised you don’t know of them.”

      The thought that we might not need to discuss what might be merely because others already are is baffling to me. I also do not understand how or why we might assume or presume to know what another is aware of.

      You mention, and again I quote..

      The Rural Organizing Project, for one, doing amazing work for poor whites.

      I wonder why your reference speaks solely of white rural poverty, for as is stated within the treatise and I quote..

      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. [emphasis added]

      Misunderstandings abound, easily. That often truly troubles me

      I sincerely believe that conversations further invite awareness. When we talk with and listen to others we learn. We are inspired. Imagination is ignited and Unrest becomes Blessed. I share…

      It is my belief that we are part of a movement that is greater and deeper and broader we ourselves know or can know.
      It flies under the radar, the media
      By and large it is non-violent it is grassroots.
      It has no cluster bombs no armies and no helicopters
      it has no central ideology a male vertebrate is not in charge this unnamed movement [you can clap for that]
      The unnamed movement
      is the most diverse movement the world has ever seen.
      The very word movement I think
      is too small to describe it
      no one started its worldview
      No one is in charge of it
      there is no orthodoxy
      It is global classless unquenchable and tireless
      the shared understanding is arising spontaneously
      from different economic sectors
      cultures regions in cohorts it is growing and spreading
      worldwide with no exception it has many roots
      primarily the origins are indigenous culture
      the environment and social justice movements ….

      May life bring you peace and prosperity..

    • Nicole January 16, 2016 at 3:53 PM - Reply

      Like whom? No one in the state of Texas that’s for sure. They want the poor to starve to death. They won’t expand Medicaid and anyone in poor zip code? No affordable insurance for them. Not now, not historically. The ACA did nothing for states that refused to expand Medicaid. They have lots of food banks in wealthy areas but zip, nada, none in the poor areas and all of them are run by…you guessed it, churches.

  2. Steve Culbertson January 14, 2016 at 3:08 PM - Reply

    Ms. Gurley misses a HUGE part of American history in this piece. Sargent Shriver, JFK’s brother-in-law and perhaps the most inventive liberal of the 20th century, launched President Johnson’s War on Poverty in Appalachia and directed many of its $1 Billion in resources toward poor whites in the 1960s. Until the program was sucked dry of funding by another war, Vietnam, it pulled millions of Americans above the poverty line. Many of his most successful programs still exist today (albeit underfunded), including Job Corps, Foster Grandparents, RSVP, Head Start, Community Action Program, Legal Services to the Poor, and VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA).

  3. Erin Lale January 15, 2016 at 10:52 AM - Reply

    I’ve seen lefty Facebook friends of mine hating on the rural poor openly and proudly, but when they do it, they sometimes slip into open racism too without even seeming to realize it. For example, this week I’ve seen a lot of people sharing mocking memes about “Y’all Qaeda,” referring to Oregon and Nevada rural protesters. People in Oregon and Nevada don’t say “y’all” so my leftist friends are using that term to designate the rural poor because they think that’s how “rednecks” talk. A redneck, of course, being a person with a permanent sunburn on the back of their neck from bending over working in the fields all day. This is mocking the rural working poor for being the rural working poor. But the “Qaeda” part– oh, why has no one on the left called out their fellow lefties for this? When someone says “Those Y’all Qaeda terrorists did such and such” they are literally equating terrorism with Islam. My only possible conclusion: the people who are perfectly happy to exhibit classism are the same people who are perfectly comfortable engaging in religious hatred and other -isms. They seem to think that’s totally OK as long as it’s “their side” talking about the “other side.”

    • mive January 17, 2016 at 8:34 AM - Reply

      Well said

    • unknown January 20, 2016 at 2:32 PM - Reply

      You understand the people that took over the government facility aren’t from Oregon or Nevada right? You’re also making the assumption that regional speech patterns are a direct reflection of affluence, which isn’t the case. The most wealth and renowned southerners I know still say y’all. The “qaeda” part is clearly tongue-and-cheek regarding the hypocrisy of what is defined as terrorism and the lack equal enforcement of justice when dealing with domestic forms of terrorism. By the definition of the FBI and the UN, what’s happening in Oregon is domestic terrorism. Additionally…this has nothing to do with the article and appears to be added because you like to say “leftist”.

      • Paul January 22, 2016 at 10:33 PM - Reply

        Hey unknown “You understand the people that took over……..”

        I have to applaud the Obama Administration for not pulling a “Clinton-Janet Renotype enforcement raid failure” like the BATFE pulled on the Branch Dravidians back in the early 1990s. A lot of people were unnecessarily killed in that raid when a “wait ’em out strategy” would have worked just fine. You can bet that the tragedy at Waco taught the BATF a lesson. And then a lot of American’s suffered the retaliation from Timothy McVey in response to Waco. So, how about we all just chill out regarding justice for the extremists out in Oregon. Just chill on it and it will all work out.

      • Bob January 24, 2016 at 1:18 PM - Reply

        While I understand the lessons learned at WACO they do not give anyone the right to stage an armed takeover . Guns and the threat of violence are incompatible with the principles of resolution learned at Waco

  4. ButReallyThough January 18, 2016 at 3:35 PM - Reply

    Yeah, you know you’re right, I’ve literally never heard a single leftist ever talk about classism in America. /s

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