Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Where Institutional Charity Fears to Tread

One of the things both I and Andrea have touched upon in discussions about life in the rural United States is the tendency to rely on local resources for community services, and the fact that government benefits and assistance often do not reach rural areas, or are applied in very uneven ways. The same holds true not just of government assistance, but also of institutional charities, many of which do not operate in rural areas.

There are some very sound and practical reasons for this. From a purely utilitarian view, charities want to do the most good for the greatest number of people. They would have to expend more resources per person to serve rural communities. This is a cold, hard, and sad truth. When you have a limited operating budget, you need to be particular about where you spend it. No charity can possibly reach every single person and thus charities must think about where they would be most effective.

There is also the fact that rural poverty can come with a heavy load of guilt and rejection of charity; it may be extremely difficult for people to accept institutional charity even when it is available, because it is often not provided in a way that is culturally appropriate. So when charities do venture into rural areas, they may get rebuffed, and use that as an argument that their services are not needed.

Instead, people in rural communities rely on each other. When someone is injured, neighbours will help with the animals and the farm. They will try to raise money to pay for hospital bills. They will help out with cooking and family care. They will help retrofit the home so the person will be able to move around after being discharged from the hospital; they will build the ramp, haul the bed to the ground floor, do what needs to be done. This is done without the expectation of reciprocity, but in the knowledge that these people, the people who need help, would turn around and do the same thing if they saw someone in need.

I do not want to discuss rural charity through rose coloured glasses. This is not a narrative that is universal. Some people in need in rural areas do not receive help, some people do not help, for a variety of reasons. This is a general trend, and it also varies considerably by region within the United States. But, generally, when I think about charity, I often think of my friends and neighbours first, and then community organisations like the food bank, and then institutional charity on a large level. And when I think about where I would go for help if I needed it, my first thought would not be a charitable organisation. When I think about where I would go to offer help, it is also directly within my community, not remotely through donations.

This creates a very different relationship to charity than the one other people may be accustomed to. There’s a reason many rural communities are not thrilled about giving up their tax monies to social services: They don’t see those services. And, again, this is a consequence of utilitarianism and the need to do the greatest good for the greatest number. There’s a reason that some rural communities still do not have electricity; because it would simply cost too much. It might cost $100,000 or more to bring electricity to one household, and that is just not an efficient use of funds and resources.

Meanwhile, some of these people paying taxes need assistance. They may not receive it from the government, and they also commonly can’t get it from institutional charities, even if they were willing to do so, because those charities do not operate in their area, or do not understand their issues. Likewise, they may not really be inclined to donate to said charities; not out of selfishness or greed, but because they see need in their own communities that they want to address first, and they do not have the disposable income to help people in their communities and donate to help people in other communities. Or because their model of charity is centred on individual assistance, which may mean that the very idea of an institutional charity is an odd one. What would it do? How would it work?

Rural people are sometimes described as selfish and greedy, in addition to not knowing what’s good for them, and these descriptions come from people who do not know what rural life is like. When rural communities demand government services, for example, it is often after years of struggling to address a problem internally, and being unable to do so. Or it is after years of resentment that every time you go to the city, the roads there are in good shape, and you want to know why yours are not, why some of your roads are still unpaved, even. You want to know why your schools are in ancient facilities and the students have no recent textbooks. You want to know why the government turned down the grant request to buy a new fire truck because your current one is from 1950. You want to know why your hospital facilities are filthy and outdated. Is that selfish?

Is finally mustering up the will to ask for assistance after being ignored selfish? Is the desire to keep money in your own community, which desperately needs it, rather than donating it outside your community, selfish?