Why Rural America Matters: Part II

 /  June 2, 2019, 7:16 p.m.

rural america 2

Carol M. Highsmith

Part I of this series addresses the lack of mainstream coverage for the problems that urban and rural places share. Part II proposes solutions to compelling policy issues for rural communities that have not been discussed at a larger scale.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have adequately addressed the problems facing rural communities. They disagree on minutiae instead of focusing on larger issues. Democrats tend to refuse to address agriculture, education, and the brain drain in rural areas that has been occurring for years, while Republicans have offered very few effective solutions for their constituents, besides less regulation and less taxation. Policy proposals that can be simplified to “you can keep more of your money” are well received in struggling communities. Without a bipartisan effort that uplifts rural concerns alongside urban discussions, the quagmire will continue. As the rural vote begins to grow in significance, though, better prospects for productive conversation will emerge.

In 2016, the Trump campaign made rural Americans feel like they were being heard again. People could look at their communities and believe that “Make America Great Again” meant that their family businesses would reopen or that larger scale development predicated on rural needs would begin in earnest. However, the administration has failed to deliver on many of its promises. Even accomplishments like the new tax plan hurt rural families, for example, by eliminating farm safety nets. President Donald Trump’s international trade war, which is one of his personal favorite talking points, has also damaged rural vitality.

Within rural communities there are disappearing hospitals, increasing opioid addiction and suicide rates, crumbling schools, declining job opportunities, and an attitude of overall hopelessness among residents. These are national problems, not simply niche rural ones, and they deserve to be included in broader conversations about topics like healthcare and education reform. However, these issues are often articulated through a purely urban lens, a fact that reveals the core of problem: digital access. While the divide between urban and rural problems might be exaggerated, the digital divide cannot be emphasized enough.

Rural residents cannot gain access to many of the utilities that urban dwellers can (at least, not to the same extent). The lack of accessibility is usually the underlying reason for the more specific problems rural areas face, despite larger similarities with urban areas. First off, rural America needs a higher degree of access to broadband. The ability to be ‘plugged in’, socially and economically, is predicated on access to technology. After studies began to link economic prosperity and broadband together, the United Nations declared internet access to be a human right. The internet can increase business productivity while reducing transactionary and labor costs, which are big concerns for smaller enterprises. Building power lines and increasing variation in local businesses through broadband access would help reverse the rural job drain.

Rural education often underpins lack of broadband access. Education is a starting point, where children are nudged onto a particular path to either escape their communities for so-called greener pastures or stay in a place that caps their potential. Roughly half the school districts and one-fifth of the students in America are in rural areas, yet rural America does not manifest in discussions about teacher incentives. Popularly espoused reform strategies, such as charter schools or internet learning, are not even applicable in rural areas because the public system is grossly under-resourced.

States fund rural schools at low rates, mostly because of Title I legislation that focuses on the number of impoverished students rather than the proportion of those students to the total number of enrolled. Once again, rural students of color attend schools with higher rates of poverty. Small schools in rural areas where populations are largely low income students of color are not getting funding because funding formulas do not consider the whole picture or proportion of those students who live in poverty. Students of color in this area are also graduating at a staggeringly lower rate than their white peers, and are even less likely to go to a community college or university. More rural students are in “deep poverty” than students in cities are; poverty is even worse in rural areas when factoring in racial differences.

Further, there is a huge gap in class availability: only 62 percent of rural schools offer at least one STEM course and half the rural students in America attend a school that only offers one to three advanced math classes. Around 87 percent of rural students finish high school—higher than the national average of 83 percent—but there is a steep drop off in the number of students who then finish college. The lack of preparation in high school impacts rural students’ abilities to succeed in college.

Rural people of color are hit harder by poverty in other ways. The overall poverty rate in small towns in 2010 was 16.3 percent; for people of color in the same areas, the rate was 28.7 percent. Statistics on people of color also include indigenous peoples, as reservations and indigenous lands are often grouped into the rural category by the census and are referred to as “statistical areas.” Those areas’ populations are usually undercounted, which affects everything from school districts to voting abilities. As some states are attempting to count “citizens only” there is yet another attempt to discount Native Americans as participants of American society.

Over half the population of Native Alaskans and Americans live in rural towns. To prefer a definition of ‘rural’ that disregards those communities’ unique identities and their relationship to the small town community would be to discount the true nature of American rurality. The lack of focus on the education of Native Alaskans, where transportation and technology are some of the largest concerns, contributes to the cycle of poverty that many indigenous people are stuck in. Rural policies should be made with respect for all residents of color and to empower them to fulfill their own potential.

There is also a dire health crisis in rural America. Lack of access to hospitals, medical facilities, healthcare and rehabilitation is in large part why the opioid epidemic hit small towns at such a large scale in comparison to urban localities. The combination of a high proportion of manual labor jobs, which have greater likelihoods of physical injury or disability, and social despair, which is common among non-Hispanic whites in small towns, is a deadly pairing for residents. Fewer than half of all rural areas and fewer than a quarter of remote rural areas have a waivered physician. Over a third of rural counties are at risk of losing their physicians. Without investment in Medicaid funding, the quality of healthcare and health for rural residents will continue to drop.

With over 80 percent of addicted rural residents left untreated, the crisis has continued to sweep communities in a way that remains unaddressed by policies. In terms of the broader availability of medical care, hospitals are very much on the decline in rural places. Over 100 hospitals have closed in rural areas since 2010 (about ten per year up to 2019). There also seems to be a total disregard among Republican leaders of the fact that Medicaid helps to fund these struggling hospitals. Maternity wards are the first to go: increasing numbers of women must travel for hours to get to a delivery room. The dangerous combination of high addiction rates and fewer hospitals, especially with regard to maternal care, is mostly lost in the urban-driven conversation about healthcare.

Bringing residents to back to their rural roots may be the most important part of reversing the brain drain and ultimately empowering rural communities. Young adults with skills acquired in other places returning home would start a shift in rural populations to mitigate the effect of the brain drain. A youthful workforce reinvigorates local markets and decreases unemployment, which together can set the stage for a revitalized rural America. Increasing the social value of a town will inevitably allow it to retain more of its own residents, and developing a town that can appeal to its youth will strengthen rural vitality.

Acknowledging that the issues facing rural America are incredibly nuanced is the first step towards policies that can follow through on promises to improve working class lives. Investing in education so that students do not feel forced to leave is crucial. Incentivizing teaching programs to send employees to small towns and providing tuition benefits to those studying education while working with rural schools are also necessary to improve schools in rural areas. With educational and economic improvements come infrastructural improvements as well. Hospitals regain funding as population returns bring greater demand. A growth in social value also increases the likelihood that rural-trained physicians will remain in their areas. The increased availability of medical care through a more expansive broadband network and more doctors present can begin to combat the lack of care throughout rural America.

Expanding the conversation about policy to address the very real issues faced by both rural areas and cities—though in different ways—is a first step to solving some of the effects of population out-migration. Part III of this series will address broader cultural issues between rural and urban America.

The image featured with this article is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License. The original was taken by Carol M. Highsmith and can be found here.

Paige Brann


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