Monday, August 12, 2019

The bad news about rural America, and ways to deal with it

Illustration by Sarah Grillo, Axios (cropped vertically from original)
The online news service Axios specializes in smart, short reads of 300 to 600 words, pretty much the range for typical post on The Rural Blog, so we're running verbatim a 583-word piece headlined "The rural America death spiral," with our commentary below. We invite you to post your own comments, by clicking on the comment link at the bottom.

By Stef W. Kight and Juliet Bartz

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.

Why it matters: The malaise and discontent that President Trump has tapped into goes beyond the racism we've seen over the past few weeks and includes anger at a changing world and frustration at dwindling opportunities close to home. These trends are further entrenching the rural-urban schism that came to light in the 2016 election.

The big picture: Political and economic power is shifting to the cities, and 20 percent of the population — 46 million people — is being left behind in the middle of America. These communities face increasingly difficult barriers to education, wealth and health. And if you're African American or Hispanic, your chances of success and survival at every turn are even worse.

Let’s say you were born, grew up and now reside in rural America. Throughout your life, you have been more susceptible to poverty, lower education, illness and even death than your urban counterparts. As a kid, chances are, you lived farther away from a doctor or hospital and got less exercise. You were more likely to live in a school desert — having to travel long distances to make it to school, if you were able to attend at all. Your school might have shuttered, as school consolidation has become more common in many rural areas, per The New York Times.

You had a greater likelihood of getting your high school diploma than the national average, but were far less likely to go straight to college than your urban and suburban counterparts, as The Atlantic reported. If you did graduate with a college degree, you'd likely end up so saddled with student debt that returning to your rural hometown wouldn't be an option if you hoped to get a job that would enable you to pay it off, according to research by the Federal Reserve. Even if you stay, some of the brightest people you grew up with would leave, contributing to the rural "brain drain."

As an adult, you’re more likely suffer from obesity, mental health issues, diabetes, cancer and opioid addiction. You are more likely to know people who took their own lives. If you keep working in your hometown, your job is more likely to be taken over by artificial intelligence, according to a study by the Brookings Institution — especially if you live in Indiana, Kentucky, South Dakota, Arkansas or Iowa. Your community's economy still hasn't fully recovered from the 2008 recession, according to Fed data.

As you get older, you are more likely to die from a preventable death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you do make it into old age, you may not have a place to grow old near your friends, family and the place you called home your whole life.

What's next: Technological advancements such as 5G and automated vehicles won't directly make life harder for rural America, but instead will fuel inequality by making life that much easier for urban America. The rural-urban divide will continue to play a central role in politics and elections for the next several years — unless and until rural America's population declines enough that its political power dwindles.

The bottom line: States, municipalities and the federal government have spent billions to draw jobs and prosperity to stagnant rural areas. But not much has changed.

COMMENT: One of our wiser advisers at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the late Dr. Gil Friedell, liked to say, "If there's a problem in the community, the solution is probably in the community." In other words, governments and philanthropies can help, but communities must leverage their own assets to create progress. Rural communities have much in common, but each one is a distinct place, with its own potential solutions. We try to provide information that helps rural communities deal with their problems; or, as our mission statement puts it, "help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities."

Articles like the one above tell troubling truths, but there are other truths. We need to remind our urban cousins that rural America is where the nation gets its food, its fiber and most of its water; it’s where Americans find recreation and relief from the urban environment, many of them in second homes. But the value of rural America to the nation is more than just economic. Most Americans have some rural heritage, and elements of rural culture still run through our lives. Its values of neighborliness and self-reliance – which are complimentary, not conflicting – are too often forgotten in urban America. We need to point out and exalt the good things about rural America and not let it be reduced to stereotypes. –Al Cross, director and professor, IRJCI, University of Kentucky


Al Cross said...

You can comment to me directly via

Andrew said...

Axios claims political power is shifting to the cities. Since when? The last two Republican presidents lost the popular vote in their first runs for office but won because of the ridiculous amount of political power vested in rural communities. If all they can do with that power is blame others (immigrants) for the problems and elect authoritarians president, well...they are making their beds.

John Flavell said...

Rural areas have become less of a provider for the more densely-populated areas, by way of food and water, to more of the submissive partner in the give and take.

The best comment above was about community problems / community solutions. Especially with rural journalism. I’ve shut down many rant about the local newspaper by simply replying: “every media property in this country is for sale. Go down there and buy that one and show me how it SHOULD be done.”

Chain ownership of community media merely prolonged the inevitable. They take and take. Until local communities WANT the local journalism, there will be less local journalism.

Go down there and buy it.

Wynn Radford said...

Insightful and accurate observations impacting every Kentucky community outside of Louisville, Lexington, and Northern Kentucky. To survive and prosper, my hope is that Kentuckians begin to embrace change on many levels than settle for the status quo. If not, and certain cultural mind-sets are not changed, our Commonwealth will sooner than later be viewed as a B-Team state. I truly hope I am proven wrong in the years ahead. Hope springs eternal!