Lisa Pruitt, a law professor at the University of California at Davis, studies the intersection of law and rural livelihoods. She also runs a site called the Legal Ruralism Blog, where she writes about the problem of rural American poverty. Pruitt grew up in a working-class rural Newton County in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas. She tells Rural America In These Times that one important misconception about rural poverty is that it is an exclusively white problem. While the majority of rural Americans struggling with poverty are white, Pruitt says, the racial makeup of the rural poor is far more diverse than the image most Americans realize.
“We tend to associate rural poverty with whiteness,” Pruitt says. “When we think about rural poverty, most associations with rural poverty are with white populations and in fact, that is true to some extent but it’s actually far from being monochromatic.”
The demographics of poverty in rural and urban America are quite similar. Though whites make up the majority of both metropolitan and non-metropolitan populations in the United States—resulting in a higher numbers of whites living in poverty—poverty rates throughout rural America are much higher among the rural minority population. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 40 percent of blacks living in non-metro counties fall below the poverty line, compared to 15 percent of whites. Poverty rates among non-metro Hispanics and American Indians are also considerably higher than they are among whites.
This popular association between rural American poverty and whiteness is key to understanding why the media, and liberal America as a whole, doesn’t talk about rural American poverty. While black poverty in the United States is attributed to the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination, incarceration, and other forms of institutionalized racism, we have no national narrative that explains white poverty. As a result, there is an implicit belief that whites—who have benefited from all of the advantages that come with being white—don’t have a good reason to be poor. In other words, that when whites live in poverty, it is their fault, or even their choice.
Since the 1960s, the current U.S. economic system has had as a constant feature 15 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
She also tags the field of sociology as ignoring rural poverty for an intense discussion of urban poverty. I can’t really speak to that field very much, but it certainly sounds right. And there’s no question that is reflected on the political left, where few people take these questions seriously. Sometimes, I feel like I am one of the only bloggers consistently talking about these issues, whether on the reservations or Appalachia.
Now, we all know that taking rural poverty seriously and suggesting that the decline of good jobs for the American working class is a bad thing makes you history’s greatest monster, as Paul Theroux discovered recently. And I think the fact that people like Annie Lowrey, Dylan Matthews, Matt Yglesias, etc., really seem to know nothing at all about rural America is quite telling. They have no sense of just how brutal rural poverty is in the United States, not only in the South and Appalachia but in the Hispano villages of New Mexico, the small towns of the Midwest, and especially the Indian reservations, where the poverty actually does remind me of rural Latin America, if not Africa. Seriously, if you’ve never been to Pine Ridge or the Navajo Nation, it really is like going to another, very, very, very poor country. It would do these people a ton of good to get out of the coastal cities and go spend time in McDowell County, West Virginia, Mora County, New Mexico, and the Navajo Nation. Maybe they would actually know something about American poverty if they did.