Rural America is in trouble—on this, nearly everyone agrees. It’s shrinking and aging, as college-educated young people leave small, isolated towns for new opportunities. The post-recession recovery in rural areas has lagged behind that of urban centers. But if there is consensus on the problem, solutions are a different matter. From re-training coal miners to funding broadband internet, ideas proliferate and receive piecemeal funding as politicians deem it necessary to earn rural votes. Others, however, have given up. Maybe there’s nothing worth doing, the argument goes; maybe it’s time to let rural America die a natural death.
At Reason, Nick Gillespie declared that bringing broadband to rural America was futile. “The bad news is that all the broadband in the world isn’t going to transform rural America into God’s Little Acre any more than a massively subsidized high-speed broadband boondoggle has turned Chattanooga in Blackburn’s Tennessee into a bustling hub of activity (the city’s population growth since 2000 is actually lower than the state’s rate of 15 percent),” he argued. There’s some truth here: Broadband alone can’t save rural communities. But Gillespie isn’t interested in saving them at all. “The answer to people being ‘left behind’ isn’t to bring the future to them (especially through tax dollars, which farmers and rural states soak up at massive rates). It’s to make it easier for them to move,” he concluded.
Gillespie isn’t alone. “Some towns are better off dead,” Kevin Williamson wrote in National Review. The proper response to dwindling rural towns and impoverished communities is to urge residents to leave: “Get the hell out of Dodge, or Eastern Kentucky, or the Bronx,” he wrote. “We spend a great deal of money trying to help poor people in backwards communities go to college; we’d probably get better results if we spent 20 percent of that helping them go to Midland, Texas, or Williamsport, Pa., or San Jose, Calif., where they’re paying delivery drivers $25 an hour to bring people their fruity gluten-free lunches.”
It sounds easy enough: If you can’t find a job where you are, move. But experts tell me that this refrain is a gross oversimplification. The problems that plague rural America did not originate there, and their consequences do not end where cities begin. The roots of rural poverty in fact say quite a bit about the nature of poverty generally—both why it happens and what can be done to prevent it.
“Just like there’s not one urban America, there’s not one rural America either,” explained Kenneth Johnson, who teaches demography and sociology at the University of New Hampshire. Some rural areas shrink with disproportionate speed; others, however, are actually experiencing net in-migration. The differences frequently map onto differences in regional industries. “For example, the parts of rural America that tend to receive net in-migration most of the time are those that are just beyond the edges of the urban areas,” Johnson said. “And then the other ones that often will receive migration gains are recreational or retirement kind of amenity areas.”
Out-migration occurs most frequently in farming communities, thus complicating the viability of just-move rhetoric. People are already moving. And while moving can certainly improve an individual’s circumstances, the trend means that the people who get left behind tend to be older, poorer, and less educated. “I’m not sure where we expect them to go,” said Rachel Franklin, who is based at Brown University’s Population Studies and Training Center. And without access to broadband, she added, many rural people may not even be able to look for work elsewhere at all.
“There’s no one simple answer, despite what a lot of those people, especially some ideological people, will argue—that people who can’t make it are people left behind because they’re not capable, versus the people who argue that it’s characteristics of the area,” said Ann Tickamyer, a professor of sociology at Pennsylvania State University. “But I guess I would argue that most of it is structural in the sense that a lot of the places that are poor are poor because of the way they have historically developed or not developed.”
She added, “So any time you make descriptions about what the problems in rural places are, and what people should do, you’re generalizing way beyond what is reasonable. The Mississippi Delta is really different from central Appalachia and the Texas borderlands.”
A change in geography also isn’t a universal panacea. Moving may help a poor African American from rural Alabama, but it won’t solve racism and classism. The prejudices conspiring against certain communities span widely and root deeply, and there is nowhere in this country you can move to escape them. Same with market forces: The extractive capitalism that impoverished Appalachia was not born in Appalachia and it will not die with coal. It stems from an age-old, pervasive mindset that privileges corporate power and profit above all else; it stagnates wages, prices health care out of reach, and burdens the aspirational with immense amounts of debt as soon as they’re out of school.
The fact is that, contra Williamson, not every migrant is going to make $25 an hour when they reach the big city. And while moving could bring in income, it can also sever a person’s access to vital family networks. “The poorer you are the more you depend on a safety net that is more likely to be made up of your relatives and friends, family, community than of whatever the official safety net is,” Tickamyer continued. “So if you are poor, sporadically employed or unemployed with kids, who provides the child care? Who helps out when you run out of money to purchase groceries or need an emergency car repair or whatever? It’s going to be the people who you are connected to in your community and in your family.”
“I think we’re expecting them to have a lot of wherewithal to even know how to do that,” Franklin added. “You’re safest if you stay put. That’s where your family networks are. If you have children and you’re married, the only person who’s going to be available to help you take care of your kids is family.”
Take the whole family with you, the Gillespies of the world might counter. But history shows that is not enough. The rural poor have always moved for work—from the Dust Bowl to California during the Great Depression, and from central Appalachia to the factories of Chicago after World War II. During the Great Migration, black Americans fled the South for the economic and social opportunities that Jim Crow prohibited. While the parallels are hardly exact, the endurance of the racial wealth gap and the growth of income inequality undermine the premise that moving reliably solves a community’s poverty.
Some towns may indeed disappear no matter what policies are implemented, Johnson allowed. “In some of the rural counties on the Great Plains, there were 20,000 people at the turn of the twentieth century, and now there’s 5,000. I’m not sure what you could do to keep those communities from continuing to fade away,” he said. But he added that this was not the case for all rural places. “In between there are a set of communities that maybe, if certain kinds of programs were implemented or if they’ve got a very energetic, engaged kind of local infrastructure, they could go either way. They could do well or they could fade away.”
While some poverty reduction strategies—like funding broadband access—are specific to rural areas, most are broadly applicable to poverty anywhere. Livable wages and accessible health care would help bridge the urban-rural gap; so could the creation of community schools, which unite educational and social services into one local hub. The answer, in other words, is more investment, not less. Rural poverty does not occur in isolation, and solutions to it will reverberate far beyond the family farm. When a town dies because of deliberate neglect, it’s not a natural death. It is not even a mercy killing. It’s often just an act of cowardice.