Keep It Rural

By Bryce Oates – Tuesday, August 31, 2021


The Persistent Problem of Persistent Rural Poverty

“Poverty” is one of those words that a lot of us use by default. It’s an imperfect and rather simplistic notion of relative wealth and money resources, but it also stands in as shorthand for scarcity in both physical and mental conditions. Poverty. Impoverished people. The poor. The cycle of poverty. The War on Poverty. And on and on…

How we define poverty as a society reminds me of how we define “rural.” There’s an official definition for bureaucratic purposes (or 2 or 3 or 20). There’s a working definition we use personally. And then there are also more artistic or liberal arts interpretations like “you know it when you see it.”

The good people at USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) have been using math and social science and credible data to measure “rural poverty” for many years now. Recently, they released their latest assessment in the series, “Rural Poverty and Well Being.” Though there are few surprises here, it’s always good to check in and remind ourselves of the patterns and trends.

One key finding is that persistent rural poverty happens in certain pockets of geography. Of the 310 counties defined with “high and persistent levels of poverty,” in 2019, 267 counties were rural (86%). The rural counties are “concentrated in historically poor areas of the Mississippi Delta, Appalachia, the Black Belt, and the southern border regions, as well as on Native American lands,” according to ERS. (Of course, I’d add the Ozarks too, but I also realize I have Missouri bias.)

The other key finding, tracking closely with geographic trends, is that rural poverty is closely related to counties with large numbers of those who identify as Black or African-American and those who identify as American Indian, Native American or Alaskan Native. Around half of all rural Black and Native American people live in these counties. As a comparison, according to ERS, “20 percent of rural poor Hispanics and 12 percent of rural non-Hispanic Whites resided in those counties.”

Persistently poor rural counties are those with 20 percent or more of their population living in poverty based on the 1980, 1990, and 2000 censuses and the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates for 2007-11. Slightly more than 5 million rural people (about 12% of the U.S. rural population) lived in counties with this definition.

It’s not positive news, I suppose, but it’s what we’ve got. Have a good week, Keep It Rural friends, and stay safe out there.


Rural Reading List

Continuing a little bit with the rural poverty theme, here’s a couple of articles from the Daily Yonder on food security and nutrition. I’d also urge you to be aware of the rapid spread of Covid-19 in rural Southern Oregon and to check out the commentary I’ve included about the need for high speed internet expansion in rural communities.

Experts: Food Insecurity in Rural Areas Likely to Increase in Months to Come

Liz Carey reports on the expiration of some nutrition programs implemented during 2020 that have helped to provide food for people during the pandemic and corresponding economic decline.

SNAP Benefits Increase Will Help Rural Areas, Experts Say

As the programs in the above article are expiring, it’s important to note that SNAP nutrition benefits are going to rise. Kristi Eaton reports on how this increase in food purchasing power for low income and working class people will help rural communities.

Delta-Fueled Infections Are Moving Through Rural, Southern Oregon ‘Like A Buzz Saw’

This NPR story documents a region in crisis with full hospitals and rising infections. It also describes newly rising vaccinations and support from the state’s urban Governor.

We Need a Rural Tech Boom

Matt Dunne of the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) opines about the need for building out high speed internet in rural, which the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure deal could help to accomplish.


One More Thing: Hurricane Ida Recovery Resources

Hurricane Ida slammed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama hard on Sunday, bringing a storm surge along with inland flooding throughout the Southeast. The impact is already being felt across the region, and emergency responders and disaster recovery support workers are now trying to clean up the damage. Things are made worse, of course, as the strong winds and buckets of rain occur alongside the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a difficult combination.

Hurricane Ida over the Gulf Coast. Photo: NOAA

For those facing lost or damaged housing, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) provides resources for rural communities in need of support, including:

USDA has also put together a Hurricane Ida Resource List that addresses food safety, livestock and pets and damage to farm operations.

While hurricanes are a semi-regular part of Gulf and Atlantic Coast existence, the lost lives, damaged homes and destroyed infrastructure are always difficult. Billions of dollars are required to rescue people and clean up messes. Energy and electricity systems must usually be rebuilt and restored. It’s a long road to anything resembling pre-flood conditions.

Let’s hope that the giant coalition of disaster assistance and recovery organizations, from the federal government to local mutual aid groups, gets the job done quickly and as smoothly as possible. We’ll be watching and cheering you all along.


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