Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Poverty

The Census indicates that over 46 million people live in poverty in the United States, in a wide range of settings. Those statistics tend to slant heavily towards children, people of colour, and people with disabilities, all of whom are particularly vulnerable to poverty. Current economic conditions also make it extremely hard to survive at or below the poverty line, in a market where cheap labour is readily accessible, food climbs out of affordability range, and rental prices rise as the real estate market falls. It’s a tough time to be poor in the United States, no matter where you are.

But where you are matters, when it comes to poverty, because being poor can look and feel very different by location. Approaching poverty as a universal problem with a one size fits all solution would be disastrous policywise, because the experience of poverty is so variable, and it’s not so simple to resolve. Huge numbers of institutional, structural, and social factors contribute to who is poor, why, and how long they remain so. One of the divides in terms of how poverty is experienced lies between urban and rural areas in the United States.

Many people have a specific vision of rural poverty, informed by work like the photographs of Dorothea Lange, or the modern-day Appalachian poverty porn used to paint a particular picture of life for poor people in rural areas. The meth epidemic in the United States has been accompanied with a number of media features providing a window into life in poor rural regions of the US, where meth is a tremendous problem and some of the worst parts of humanity are on display. These images are often used to marginalise rural areas even further by suggesting that living in rural communities means people are automatically poor, and that rural residents aren’t capable of ‘civilised life.’

Dirty children living in trailers, run-down fences, old cars up on blocks in the yard.

The fact of the matter is that the poverty rate in rural areas is higher than that in the rest of the country, and that is inescapable. But it’s important to talk about what form that takes and how it differs from that in urban areas. People in rural areas have access to some resources people in urban areas do not, but the opposite also applies. There’s more room for food production, for instance, and some are land rich and cash poor, allowing them to dedicate space on land they may own or control to food production.

The social net, however, is hugely lacking in rural communities, because there are fewer people to serve. A reduced population means a more limited number of clients, which forces service providers to make difficult choices. The most efficient use of resources is often in urban areas, where programs to provide nutrition education, job assistance, and other tools will go much further because they will reach more people. Consequently, people in rural areas tend to have more limited community-based resources than those in urban areas.

While they may be able to access government benefits, they can have a harder time using them. Long trips may be required to use things like food stamps, or to find a doctor who accepts Medicaid. Community education classes and workshops may be so remote that they are functionally unattendable, especially if people have children, jobs, and other commitments that make it hard to leave. The same kinds of barriers can come up in urban areas, but it’s easier to take action to address them because people are concentrated in densely populated areas, making it easier to organise around them.

Things that work in urban areas aren’t going to work in rural areas because the communities are structurally different. They are also culturally different; the rural US has its own culture and social complexities, and these do not map neatly over to urban culture. Especially when you balance the fact that rural people aren’t homogeneous, that some are people of colour, people with disabilities, immigrants, and members of other communities that may have specific feelings about government and charity. Many of those feelings are based on real history and experience, and cannot be taken lightly. Rural people may not necessarily trust doctors, for example, and with good reason, with a history of being used as experimental subjects.

Approaching poverty in the US requires putting together the pieces of an extremely large and complex puzzle. And perhaps it’s time to admit that we’re no longer looking at a single puzzle, that some of these pieces do not fit because they are from an entirely different puzzle which needs to be assembled separately. This is a large country, with a lot of people in it, and those people come from such varying backgrounds and experiences that it is impossible to compress them neatly into one.

Rural poor are not like urban poor. All poverty is not the same, although there are many commonalities between the experience of poverty in both locales. There are also profound differences; the homeless population, for example, tends to be larger in urban areas, because homeless people can access more resources in these locations. People use and think about government and social benefits differently in these areas because of their differing life experiences, and these also vary by region. Poor folks in Northern California are not like poor folks in Georgia are not like poor folks in Vermont.

Any more than poor folks in New York City are like those in rural Texas.