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Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Mil Duncan was a surveyor of rural life long before the Trump-era, and the hordes of journos in West Virginia diners that accompanied his rise to power. She is the author of Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America, and founding director of the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute. I recently interviewed her about the expanded Child Tax Credit, and subsequently became fascinated by the work she and fellow researcher Jessica Ulrich-Schad have done classifying different types of rural communities.
Mil likes to say that poverty is poverty, wherever you are. Being poor creates similar, predictable struggles whether the backdrop is a quiet mountain hamlet or a teeming metropolis. But she’s dedicated her career to teasing out the particularities of rural poverty, and expanding the conversation around who’s poor in the United States, and why.
Enjoy our conversation about her path into rural scholarship, the plight of the “transitioning” rural community, and the relationship between inequality and civic culture, below.
Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: What’s your connection to rural? You wrote a must-read book on rural poverty in 1999 that you updated in 2013. How did that project come about and what’s kept you engaged in this work?
Mil Duncan: My connection to rural came in the 1970s. My husband and I were social change activists, and we moved from the California Bay Area to Appalachia, first to Big Stone Gap Virginia and later to Berea Kentucky, to work on community economic development in what we expected would be a hard place with big challenges. Across the country, community development corporations (CDCs) were working on housing and credit and job development, and we came to know others working in rural areas as part of the War on Poverty. To learn more about social change and development research, I went to the University of Kentucky for graduate work in Sociology. William Julius Wilson had written an important article for the Annual Review of Sociology rethinking work on urban poverty, and my teacher and I published a companion-like piece on rural poverty. So first I moved to a rural place and tried to figure out how places change and develop on the ground, and then I studied what others had learned over the years.
I consulted for the Ford Foundation and Aspen Institute on national rural policy, working with Susan Sechler who had written an important report on the changing structure of agriculture during her work with [former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture] Secretary Bergland. The Foundation wanted to support more rural policy scholarship as rural America was beginning to encounter restructuring of local economies. In our meetings I found that many of the dynamics I had seen when we worked in Appalachia also existed in poor regions of the rural South.
Schools were riddled with patronage and didn’t work for poor children. Local power was concentrated in the hands of a few, and those from poor families were left out of community institutions and denied opportunity. These similarities existed between an area where most people blamed coal practices for poverty and an area where racism was said to be the culprit. When I became a professor at the University of New Hampshire, I pulled together a book on rural poverty with leading poverty scholars, and then, again informed by Wilson’s urban poverty work, I began the multi-year project on rural poverty that became Worlds Apart. In the early 1990s I spent every school break interviewing people from all walks of life in three communities, one in Appalachia, one in the Mississippi Delta, and one in northern New England, putting together profiles of how the communities worked and showing how people were trapped in poverty over the years. I also worked with national foundations and community foundations on rural development and rural poverty issues, so I kept a “foot in both worlds,” seeing the foundations’ grantees and partners on the ground trying to make change and then also conducting research in rural places and contributing to rural scholarship.
Later, as Director of Community and Resource Development at the Ford Foundation, I had the opportunity to work on urban and rural poverty and development programs. Our work overseas was primarily in rural places, supporting community forestry, as was our U.S. rural work, so I continued to learn about rural places and had deep respect for rural leaders and their commitment to their community and its natural resources.
I should add that returning to my original three communities twenty years later offered a really great opportunity to reflect on change and development, on poverty and education, and on community leadership. In all three places the changes were big. In Appalachia and northern New England, the story was decline, but decline under different civic culture scenarios. In the Delta it was more mixed, but still the overall story for this long-poor place was not optimistic.
“The three types of rural areas represent different patterns of change, or lack of change, in rural America.”
DY: In your 2018 paper “People and places left behind: work, culture and politics in the rural United States” you outline three types of rural communities: amenity-rich, transitioning, and chronically-poor. You define a transitioning rural place as a place that “once had a robust blue-collar middle class and a strong civic culture, but economic downturn is threatening both.” How much of the attention garnered in recent years by “rural America” should actually be focused on this particular segment of rural?
MD: I think the attention to rural America, which is largely about politics in rural America, is mostly focused on transitioning rural places where goods-producing jobs and the relative prosperity they brought have disappeared. The three types of rural areas represent different patterns of change, or lack of change, in rural America. Amenity-rich areas have desirable natural resources that draw retirees and recreational visitors and laptop professionals. These are likely the kind of rural places that have seen growth during the pandemic as professional workers could do their job remotely. Transitioning places are in a different position, however. Work underlies culture in many rural communities, and rural people in transitioning places who lost jobs and their Main Street businesses felt a cultural loss; they lamented the loss of their “heritage.” I have hypothesized, and many journalists have reported, that they felt abandoned by traditional politicians.
Many who live in urban or suburban settings have either ignored or misunderstood rural Americans, falling prey to stereotypes or nostalgia. But importantly, I think, these misunderstandings also get entangled with issues of class and social status, with some combination of misunderstanding and obliviousness to the working class. As Robert Reich has argued for many years, restructuring and globalization undermined America’s goods-producing sectors that undergirded the blue collar middle class after World War II.
The bottom line, as many commentators are now pointing out, is that when the economy started to change and the working middle class began to see their industries and jobs disappear, the government, under President Reagan, simultaneously cut investment in public goods, including human capital investments. Workers were left to navigate the changes without support for a transition. The Biden-Harris administration is trying to change that now, with across-the-board investments, and it will be huge if it works.
“Many who live in urban or suburban settings have either ignored or misunderstood rural Americans, falling prey to stereotypes or nostalgia. But importantly, I think, these misunderstandings also get entangled with issues of class and social status, with some combination of misunderstanding and obliviousness to the working class.”
DY: You argue in Worlds Apart that poverty persists in part because a community’s civic culture is weak when there is not a robust middle class. Can you explain what you mean?
MD: Civic culture matters and is tied up with the extent to which there is equality or inequality in a place. A strong and resilient civic culture includes three dimensions: trust; inclusive participation; and community-wide investment, and these are best supported by a large middle class. In the 1980s sociologists Willam Juius Wilson and Elijah Anderson found that the decline of good blue collar jobs, combined with new opportunities for the black middle class to move to the suburbs, left inner cities without middle class investment, leadership and mentoring. The young people growing up poor in these poor communities had fewer human and community resources to support them. People worried about a new “underclass.”
I found in my own research, and in the literature on chronically poor rural places, that the same dynamic was at play. There were haves and have-nots, virtually no middle class, and diminished community-wide goods and institutions. In places with a strong blue collar middle class the poor are more integrated into community life and less isolated. They have access to community institutions and resources when their family resources are limited. They can better move out of poverty, get an education and find stability. Again, I think the current administration’s renewed investment in people and places will strengthen the middle class, address inequalities, and also strengthen communities’ civic culture.
DY: In Worlds Apart, you wrote about the all important distinction between “those who work” and “those who do not” in chronically poor places. Do you think Covid has had any impact on attitudes toward welfare reliance in rural places? Is there reason to think the popularity of expanded unemployment insurance and stimulus checks will impact public opinion even after the crisis ends?
MD: Work is important in rural communities for individuals’ identity and, as we discussed earlier, for community identity. But jobs are scarce in many poor and transitioning places. Attitudes toward relief are complicated. An interviewee can complain about people dependent on welfare and then, in the same conversation, observe how many turned up hoping for hard labor day jobs. In Appalachia there have been booms and busts and in the Delta seasonal field and tractor driving work and that means the workers also need to rely on public assistance. I hesitate to opine about how Covid and the expanded relief may have changed longstanding stereotypes about the have-nots dependency on welfare, in part because these are mostly stereotypes. But I think the investments in families and children—child allowances and child care and preschool—will be felt throughout rural communities and come to be valued. I have found people everywhere want respect and dignity, and the proposed public investments will come with respect, respect for families and for workers. I hope they will be experienced as investments, not as handouts.
DY: Lastly, what have you been reading lately? Any recommendations?
MD: Recently my granddaughter and I read Annie Dillard’s The Living aloud together. It is a great multi-generational saga of families settling the northwest. Full of interesting complex characters. We felt it really gave us a sense of the challenges and opportunities in those settlements, for the new white settlers and the indigenous people in the region. It would be fun to couple with Annie Proulx’s relatively new Barkskins, which is also a great, if somber, read about timber harvesting in early America, and again the role of indigenous people, and unfortunately their horrible mistreatment. I am a longtime fan of Louise Erdrich, and both her recent books, The Roundhouse and The Nightwatchman are wonderful.
I love any work by Michael Ondaatje, and Warlight, his most recent, is full of characters who just stick with you and pop back in your mind when you are out walking or having a quiet moment. His books aren’t necessarily about rural life, but they are pretty great, and based on exhaustive and interesting research.
I only recently read East of Eden, a Steinbeck classic, but it was one of those books where you really grieve when you have finished it. I moved back to California in 2019, and it was fun to be immersed in that landscape around Stockton.
I will mention three other recent reads that I recommend. I loved Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, for many reasons, but I find myself often thinking about the various rivals’ connection to their gardens through the seasons. She has developed memorable, deep stories about Lincoln and his complicated team.
I am reading more essays, partly with a thought that I can try my hand more often at essays as I step away from scholarship. I loved a sweet little book by John Muir, Stickeen, about Muir’s danger-filled adventure on a glacier with a really great dog. My grandson and I read it in one sitting and it had us both in its grip. A friend recently recommended One Long River of Song by Brian Doyle, and I love his voice and reflection on everyday living and pain and joy.
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This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a new email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.