gas prices and income
In dark yellow counties, gas costs are taking the biggest bite (more than 13%) of income
Map: Kevin Quealy for the New York Times, based on Oil Price Information Service, U.S. Census

Along with the social, cultural and employment pressures that siphon country youth off to cities, rural America has sprung a big new leak. Clifford Krauss’s report in today’s New York Times finds that rural Americans are taking a much harder hit from soaring gasoline prices.

“Nationwide, Americans are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline,” writes Krauss. “By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure has surpassed 13 percent.”

The interactive map above tells the story. In the yellow areas, concentrated in Wyoming, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Eastern Kentucky, the Mississippi Delta, and the Black Belt of Alabama, people are spending more than 13% of their income on gasoline. In Wilcox County, Alabama, 16% of income goes into the tank.

Krauss’s story describes the effects: families can’t pay other bills or afford meat for dinner. Workers are borrowing cars from their employers. Resturants are closing.

A discussion of rural gas prices and their impact took off on an ABC news forum recently. “Most of rural America must travel at least 25 miles one way for grocers, the doctor, hospitals, any real shopping, not to mention our jobs,” wrote pposton21. “Our farmers are struggling to put out a crop and because of weather and fuel prices. Our schools are struggling with the high cost of transporting students.”

An article in Huffington Post last month reported that one rural school district in Western Minnesota will shift to a four-day school week starting in September, to conserve fuel and money.

Between 1990 and 2000, the numbers of Americans traveling out-of-county to work was on the rise. By 2000 a third of all workers were commuting to another county for a job. A report from University of Missouri’s Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis found that the highest communiting rates were in counties “within easy commuting distance to one or more regional trade centers.”

missouri commute
In most of Missouri (dark blue) 26-73% of workers commute out-of-county to jobs
Source: Missouri OSEDA

In Maries County, Missouri, 65.5 percent of workers were traveling to jobs in neighboring Phelps (Rolla), Pulaski (Fort Wood) and Cole (Jefferson City) counties. From the 2000 numbers, Missouri’s researchers saw evidence of “the extent of urban sprawl occurring in the vicinity of larger trade centers.” But with gasoline $4 per gallon, “easy commuting distance” will be redefined.

(Surprisingly, NPR reported that “more Americans commute from the city to the suburbs than from the suburbs to the city, making up about 9 percent of commutes.” That story was also based in 2000 transportation data, before the huge hike in gas prices.)

A story in the Charleston Gazette, looking at the transportation problems of rural workers, found that in West Virginia, only 1% of the state’s workers used public transportation — as compared with 4% nationally. There aren’t any commuter trains between Beckley and Charleston or most anywhere else in the rural U.S.

And buses? “…great, but only if you work in certain parts of the biggest city near you,” wrote cjordan75 on the ABC forum. “Public transportation in the Midwest is something we can only dream about.”

For low-income workers in rural areas, the problem is most acute. Krauss concludes, “Sociologists and economists who study rural poverty say the gasoline crisis in the rural South, if it persists, could acceleerate population loss and decrease the tax base in some areas as more people move closer to urban maufacturing jobs.”

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