Progressives and Rural America

Writing for In These Times, Lauren Gurley has attempted to explain “Why the Left Isn’t Talking about Rural American Poverty.”

Here is how Gurley frames her discussion:

“Within the popular American conscience—arguably a close reflection of the mainstream media—there are two favored focal points for discussing the problem of poverty. The first is within the urban, inner city context—often conflated with black poverty—which has held a critical role in American political and cultural discourse throughout most of the past century. The second is the poverty of the Global South: Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the rest of the developing world.

“What seldom gets talked about—and when it is, often with irreverent humor and contempt—is the poverty of rural America, particularly rural white America: Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Mississippi Delta, the Dakotas, the Rio Grande Valley, the Cotton Belt.

“If you spend time among coastal liberals, it’s not unusual to hear denigrating remarks made about poor “middle Americans” slip out of mouths that are otherwise forthcoming about the injustices of poverty and inequality.

“Yet, since the 1950s, Americans living in non-metropolitan counties have had a higher rate of poverty than those living in metropolitan areas. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, the poverty rate among rural-dwelling Americans is three percent higher than it is among urban-dwellers. In the South, the poorest region of the country, the rural-urban discrepancy is greatest—around eight percent higher in non-metro areas than metro areas.”

Gurley then offers the following reasons for this attitude toward rural American poverty. First, she makes the case that since the rise of industrialization, sociology has had a largely urban bias. Second, she points out that rural Americans have fewer employment opportunities and narrower employment options, that they have fewer educational alternatives on the K-12 level and less access to higher education, and that social services are generally spread much more thinly across rural communities. Third, Gurley points out that the association of rural poverty with White Americans is something of a misconception and leads to simplified notions about rural poverty that are based on the assumption that the rural poor fit a uniform type—even a stereotype.

At the end of the article, Gurley acknowledges that rural Whites often have values that are antithetical to progressives—most notably, opposition to abortion rights and to LGBT rights—and one could add, to gun control and to environmental regulation. Gurley proposes that there is, however, some potential common ground to be found in labor activism and in an emphasis on building stronger communities.

Perhaps, but even in the northern Appalachians, where organized labor was once very strong, rural White Americans have become increasingly hostile to unions, and since small communities are often defined internally by their “values,” I think that the possibilities for making progressive inroads into rural communities have become very thinly stretched.

There are two other factors at work here.

First, much of rural America is becoming depopulated.

Rural Depopulation

So, expending a great deal of resources of (re-)building a progressive political base in rural America does not make a lot of sense. For instance, I live in an area in West Central Ohio that is usually defined as including ten very agricultural counties and that is staunchly Republican. Those ten counties have considerably fewer eligible voters than Lucas county, which includes Toledo, the fourth largest city in Ohio. And a look at the federal congressional districts in Ohio shows very clearly how thinly populated the rural counties have become—both in terms of their historical populations and in proportion to the urban areas.

Ohio Congressional Districts

(By the way, the area in which I live is actually split between the 4th and 5th congressional districts.)

Second, for a complex mix of reasons, the voters in rural White America who would be most likely to voter for progressive candidates have become the least likely to vote. The economic degradation of many rural communities has not only magnified social problems such as drug and alcohol addiction but it has also led to political apathy among the most socially marginalized and economically disadvantaged segments of the population. Moreover, although much attention has been paid to how voter-suppression measures have targeted urban districts likely to produce large margins for progressive candidates, those measures have also served to disenfranchise many rural voters, enabling the Far Right to maintain run largely unopposed and to win by large margins in low-turnout elections.

For the same reasons that poor rural Americans have less access to employment opportunities, educational possibilities, and social services, progressives would have to expend disproportionate resources to convince many rural voters that, first, they should exercise their right to vote because their votes do matter and, then, that they should vote for progressive candidates because those candidates will actually work to improve and be able to conditions within their communities. So, the most that is likely to happen is that resources may be expended in selected rural districts when local activists establish a solid political base that can be supported and enhanced with some outside resources: that is, such efforts are much more likely to be bottom-up than top-down.


Gurley’s complete article is available at:

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