Pushing Back Against Rural America’s Detractors

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By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News

When you see a headline on a story like, “The Rural America Death Spiral,” it can be dismaying, make your blood boil, and create doubts about our future. Then you have to consider the source. Axios, the publisher of the story, is based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., about as far removed from the extraordinary diversity of America’s rural landscape as you can get. Still, it stings.

“Many of the nation’s current pathologies are taking a heavy toll on the majority-white population living in rural America, which was severely impacted by the opioid crisis and has dealt with falling populations, job losses, and rising suicide rates,” Stef W. Kight and Juliet Bartz write for the news website Axios.

“Let’s say you were born, grew up, and now reside in rural America,” write Stef Kight and Juliet Bartz. “Throughout your life, you have been more susceptible to poverty, lower education, illness, and even death than your urban counterparts.”

These are important observations, they contend because it explains the anger and discontent in rural America, where we are disadvantaged in so many ways. President Trump was able to tap into our “malaise and discontent” based on inadequate access to education, health care, housing, and dead-end local jobs. We suffer from a brain drain as our few kids who do leave to go to college don’t come back. Too much school debt to take a poor paying job in rural America should there just happen to be one available.

And it is only going to get worse in the years ahead as the rural population continues to decline due to kids moving away and more old people dying than babies being born take their toll on our small communities, the two say. The spiral will continue with one problem accentuating another as the access to quality education, medical care, and economic opportunity fade.

We have more obesity in rural America, more mental health problems, more incidences of cancer, opioid addiction and diabetes, Kight and Bartz said. Of course, suicide rates are high as well since life is so miserable in rural America. They cite source after source to corroborate their litany of problems eroding rural American life.

And, when we get too old to live alone there will be no place close by to care for us – we will have to leave our friends and family behind as we shuttle off to some remote facility. (We know this isn’t true locally with Scandi Haven Village.)

We are in trouble, too, because our ability to influence those in Washington, D.C., and our state legislatures to implement policies to revitalize rural America is declining. Also, they’ve already wasted too much money trying to help us out.

“States, municipalities and the federal government have spent billions to draw jobs and prosperity to stagnant rural areas. But not much has changed,” they write. Well, maybe that is because the programs are too small and too limited in the kinds of support they offer rural America.

Our current depressing state of affairs led the largely white, uneducated, and desperate in rural America to vote for Donald Trump in 2016. However, that won’t matter much longer as we continue to lose population and political clout – the metropolitan areas of the nation will eventually have the power to override and dismiss the influence, and needs of rural people.

We are certain there are places in rural America with such depressing accumulation of maladies as Kight and Bartz gathered, but then we also know they have painted all of rural America with an overbroad brush. There are stark differences between rural Minnesota and the rural South. The rural West faces different challenges than the rural East. Geography, history, education, and the involvement (or lack of it) of state governments in partnerships with rural areas define so much of our current state of affairs and future.

Kight and Bartz don’t just ignore regional differences, they ignore the individual ingenuity, work ethic, and dynamics of so much of rural America. Though they bring up the challenges we facing, their overbroad conclusions overlook the individuality of our communities.

“Our simple answer to Kight and Bartz is that if it’s such a living hell out here, why is it so much fun? Why do we get such a feeling of belonging and purpose and community?” the staff of the Daily Yonder, a web site with excellent coverage of the issues facing rural as well as the all the good things we are doing in faces the challenges we face.

“We also might ask Axios why kids growing up in rural America do much better than kids who grow up in the bustling, high tech, whiz-bang cities of tomorrow. Kids from poor families growing up in rural areas have a better ‘chance’ than kids from similar families in urban areas. They are less likely to go to prison. They are more likely to form families. And they earn higher incomes,” they write. These observations come from a Harvard University’s studied entitled: “Rural areas produce better outcomes.”

They also make another observation that highlights the advantages of living in rural America. Metropolitan areas of the country were always stratified to some degree between the areas where the poor, the rich and the working middle class lived. Race also separates where we live. We have assumed some of those barriers are breaking down. They aren’t. In fact, they are getting more entrenched.

 “Over the last forty years US cities have experienced a profound transformation in their socioeconomic structure: poor and rich families have become increasingly spatially separated over time,” Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes.

The economists who wrote the study on the growing separation point out that the growing inequality leads to less opportunity for poor children and minorities.

“This is one of the reasons rural kids do better than urban kids,” he writes. “Neighborhoods in rural areas are less segregated economically. We all go to the same school, vote in the same precinct and shop in the same stores.

We do have to recognize the challenges rural America faces and continue to work to see programs implemented at the state and federal levels that can make real differences in addressing housing, education, health, and economic development efforts.

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