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Rural America

‘Cities v. Country’: Focus on Divide Means Rural Voices Go Unheard

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Sarah Smarsh, left, was the keynote speaker at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Life in Rural symposium in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

You probably wouldn’t suspect it, but journalist Sarah Smarsh’s dad’s favorite politician is Maxine Waters.

Nick Smarsh is a fourth-generation wheat farmer and lifelong construction worker from rural Kansas, Waters a decidedly liberal congresswoman from southern California.

Granted, Nick Smarsh isn’t likely among the majority of rural Americans in his unabashed admiration for Waters. But he’s certainly not alone.

Debunking stereotypes of rural America – as monolithic, as “Trump Country” – was a primary topic of conversation at the Life in Rural America Symposium held last month in Charleston, West Virginia, in conjunction with the release of the “Life in Rural America: Part II” report by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from surveys of 1,405 adults living in the rural U.S.

The message emanating from Charleston was clear: Rural America is politically, racially and economically diverse. It’s the mountains of Appalachia, Midwest farmland, the Mississippi Delta, the Great Plains, Hispanic and Native-American communities scattered throughout the country, Mormon communities in the west. Out of that diversity come a myriad of narratives.

Sarah Smarsh, left, was the keynote speaker at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Life in Rural symposium in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

As keynote speaker at the symposium, Smarsh, author of the bestselling Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth, shared her father’s affinity for Rep. Waters. And she joined a chorus of speakers and other attendees in emphasizing the importance of hearing the many voices of rural America.

“A problem well-stated is half-solved,” Smarsh said of the issues rural Americans face today, quoting inventor Charles Kettering. But it must be articulated from within.

Narratives, if genuine, matter, she said. “Because the hell of it is, you can start believing in the lie about yourself.”

Debunking the Mainstream View

Certainly, symposium panelists acknowledged, there are issues common to the whole of rural America. Among the “Life in Rural America” report’s findings are that 64 percent of rural residents believe that better long-term job creation would be most helpful to their local economy, 61 percent believe that improving the quality of local schools would be most beneficial and 55 percent point to improved access to health care.

The report also suggests that the solutions lie within rural communities. While a majority of those interviewed in the survey acknowledged that assistance from the federal and state governments is required, more than half said they’re active in solving problems in their community – with younger adults reporting higher levels of participation – and two-thirds said their neighbors have helped them in times of need.

Ed Sivak, executive vice president of policy and communications for the Hope Enterprise Corporation, presented data that could help move rural communities toward equity. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

“The way I look at it,” said Ed Sivak of the Mississippi-based Hope Enterprise Corporation, a nonprofit community development financial institution, “there ain’t nothing wrong in rural America that can’t be fixed by what’s going right.”

Smarsh spoke of the “promising picture” of rural America that she encounters in her travels – of people coming together as communities across political boundaries and “working in a space of what I would call localism, of, ‘How do we solve these problems locally, when we’re feeling sort of not only misunderstood but perhaps even scorned and scapegoated on a national level?’”

The story that’s told in the media about rural America, she asserted, is largely a false narrative. “There’s a great dissonance between the prevailing stereotypes and tropes about rural America and what’s actually happening on the ground,” she said.

“If you’re a cable news network, and you like conflict, and you want to whip up the idea of cities versus country – which drives up ratings and enforces some sort of unfortunate tribal identities – then you put up a map of the United States where each state is colored either red or blue, as though that monochromatic color would represent everyone in that state.”

In fact, Smarsh pointed out, in the 2016 election around 40 percent of voters in a majority of states selected the candidate who lost that state in the presidential election. “So we’re sort of rendering invisible millions of people when we use terms like ‘Trump Country’ and reduce regions to political monoliths.”

Local Talent   

Rural communities are staking claim to their future.

Ines Polonius, CEO of Communities Unlimited, Inc, a not-for-profit that provides economic-development assistance in southeastern states, said that community development should begin with a focus on assets, not deficits. This approach “begins to shift mindsets, and it begins to create hope.”

Polonius spoke of structuring “entrepreneurial ecosystems” that allow communities “to build their economies from the inside.”

“A lot of times what we find is that as we identify leaders that have really creative ideas and we bring them to the table, they’ve never been in a position where they’ve had the opportunity to lead,” Polonius said. “They’ve never had an opportunity to be in a room with other leaders and actually work together and work through implementation.”

Lisa Mensah, president and CEO of Opportunity Finance Network, a national association of community development financial institutions, or CDFIs, joined Polonius in a panel discussion of capacity building and advancing economic opportunity.

In a recent op-ed piece for The Daily Yonder, Mensah reported that 85 percent of the nation’s 353 persistently poor counties are rural. CDFIs, Mensah wrote, play a critical role in lifting rural economies. They have “proven experience and the conviction that decent housing, clean drinking water and life enriching community facilities and opportunities can happen in even the remotest and poorest areas.”

“We know how to solve problems in rural infrastructure, housing, banking, small business and healthcare,” Mensah wrote, and underscored in Charleston. “The solution is capital, resources and perseverance.”

Jen Giovannitii, left, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, joined a panel at the Life in Rural symposium to discuss how rural communities can move toward solutions. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Jen Giovannitti, president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, which provides grant assistance throughout southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia, spoke of the importance of making disruptive investments in rural communities – by investing, for example, in CDFIs.

“Banks are not providing all of the services that we need for small businesses, housing and health care,” Giovannitti said in a post-symposium interview. CDFIs are making that investment.

She cited as an example investing in young family-practice physicians, dentists and pharmacists who want to settle in a rural community. They’ve accumulated enormous debt from their education and the cost of starting out on one’s own can be prohibitive. Banks consider them a poor risk.

Investing in those practices, Giovannitti said, is an investment in both the health and economy of that community.

“So this, for us, disrupts the system,” she said. These young health care professionals “might not be able to make that happen in a traditional setting. But these intermediaries,” the CDFIs, “can make it happen.”

A Seat at the Table

The well-stated consensus in Charleston was that the foundation for development in rural communities is capacity building and leadership training. But there then must be a seat at the larger table.

“One of the reasons why rural America doesn’t get the resources it needs is because it is not really at any of the tables where those decisions about rural America are made,” Brian Dabson, a research fellow at the University of North Carolina School of Government, said.

“We go through the motions of putting our arms around and saying we care for each other,” Dabson offered, “but that’s not the reality in the way the large-scale resources are allocated. It’s who’s got the power. And until we redistribute that power, then we’ve got to put a Band Aid over it and deal with it at the local level and take care of ourselves within that unfair context.”

Demanding “equal voice, equal power,” he said, is of the essence.

“We don’t want to be in denial,” Dee Davis, founder and president of the Whitesburg, Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies, said, “but we also know that you really can’t build a way forward unless you’re working with an understanding of your assets and lifting them up.”

He’d made a list of assets discussed throughout the day that he felt are “worth hanging onto.” Among them: diversity, family, heritage, humor, entrepreneurial spirit, common purpose, striving for a better world for one another’s children … that “the mountains are our grandfathers” (“I want to be a mountain for someone,” Davis avowed.) … “that we aren’t supplicants, that we have standing to negotiate” … “our connections in systems and connection in story.”

Davis was encouraged by what he’d heard and experienced this day.

“People are very certain of who’s going to make it and who’s not,” he said. “But we should be a little careful in making these projections, because there are a lot of balls in the air, and we’re not sure how they’re going to fall.”

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Strategies produces The Daily Yonder, a publishing partner of 100 Days in Appalachia.

Rural America

Survey Report Reveals Disparities In Appalachian Subregions

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This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

A new report from the Appalachian Regional Commission shows that Central Appalachia lags behind other parts of the region in employment, household income and other key measures.

The data come from the American Community Survey, which is similar to the census and tracks county-level data over five-year periods. Researchers often use the survey to understand trends over time.

The Appalachian Regional Commission, which analyzed the ACS data, separated Appalachia into five subregions. In many key metrics, Central Appalachia, which includes parts of Kentucky and West Virginia, lagged behind other subregions.

Population, Income, Poverty

Appalachia as a whole has grown in population by 1.4 percent since 2008-2012, the last survey period, well below the national rate, but Central and South Central Appalachia lost population.  

Although the region’s poverty rate declined 3 percentage points since the last survey period, Central Appalachia’s poverty rate went up in the same time frame.

And Central Appalachia had by far the lowest median household income at about $35,862, while the region as a whole was nearly $48,000.

Central and South Central Appalachia lag behind other subregions in change in poverty rate. Courtesy of Appalachian Regional Commission

The trends will resonate with residents of Central Appalachia, who have long worried about working-age adults pursuing careers elsewhere, leaving a poorer, aging population behind.

Wendy Wasserman, a spokesperson for the Appalachian Regional Commission, said the survey did not analyze the causes or consequences of the data.

“What the report does show is a couple things,” Wasserman said. “As we know, Appalachia is not an entire region having the same experience from Northern Mississippi to Southern New York. There are variations across the region itself, and every region has its own challenges, its own opportunities, and its own way of being.”

New Data

The ARC analysis includes for the first time information on access to transportation, Internet and digital devices down to the county level. Because this is the first survey period to include that information, it is more difficult to draw conclusions about trends over time, but the data still reveals disparities across Appalachia that can help ARC and other grant-making organizations more closely target grant funding and other resources.

In Central Appalachia, where Kentucky’s failure to deliver high-speed internet access through the KentuckyWired project has drawn national attention, access to broadband internet stands at 64.3 percent, compared to the Appalachian average of 72.3 percent and a national average of 78.1 percent. A full 25 percent of Central Appalachian households had no access to any computer device, including a smartphone, well above the Appalachian average and more than double the national average, 12.8 percent.

In transportation, Central Appalachia was generally in line with the rest of the region in access to a vehicle, commute times, and percent of workers who drive to work alone.

Wasserman said ARC was hopeful the new data points on tech and transportation would serve as a baseline for future improvements.

Some Upsides

The report is not entirely negative. Although in many cases Central Appalachia lagged behind other subregions, Appalachia as a whole saw improvements in income and poverty metrics. Appalachian Kentucky saw the largest decrease of all Appalachian states in poverty among residents over the age of 65.

Education showed positive signs in new American Community Survey data. Courtesy of Appalachian Regional Commission

Wasserman said even though unemployment in Appalachia remains higher than the national average, it still went down across the region.

“High school [graduation] rates have been stronger, rates of degrees from community college are higher, graduation rates from Bachelors are better,” Wasserman said. “And that to me is exciting because that’s an indicator of optimism, as it were.”

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Rural America

Poll: Addiction, Affordability & Access Top Health Concerns in Rural America

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Dr. Albert Warren consults with a patient and records the patient’s symptoms on an electronic tablet in Hawkinsville, Georgia. Photo: Bob Nichols/USDA

More than four in 10 adults living in rural Appalachia cite drug abuse as the biggest issue facing their communities, according to “Life in Rural America: Part II,” a report released this week by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from a telephone survey of 1,405 adults living in the rural U.S.

This, said, Robert Blendon, Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at the Chan School and co-director of the study, is among the most surprising findings.

Among other disturbing revelations, the researchers say, are that nearly half of rural Americans would be unable to afford to immediately pay off an unexpected $1,000 expense, and that four in 10 say their families have experienced problems affording medical bills, housing, or food in the past few years.

Robert Blendon, Menschel, professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, presented his findings Tuesday in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: Shawn Poynter/Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

On Tuesday, 100-plus individuals representing community-based organizations, foundations, government agencies, academic institutions, and the media gathered at the Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia, to discuss the findings, their root causes and possible solutions.

The first part of the survey was conducted in October of last year.

“We use this public opinion survey work to really provide the initial seed for conversations like the one we’re having here today,” Carolyn Miller, a Robert Wood Johnson senior program manager, told those assembled. “We aim to shed light on the lived experience of different groups of people to further understanding and to find common ground, and we link results of these calls to other programmatic work and research that we at the foundation are doing, as well as other people around the country.”

The survey confirmed some considerable concerns. The researchers found that rural Americans continue to have trouble accessing affordable, quality health care.

More than one in four say there has been a time in the past few years when they needed health care but couldn’t get it. Four in 10 adults without health insurance didn’t receive that care when they needed it.

And even those with health insurance had issues: One in four who had insurance said they didn’t receive care. Among the reasons were that it was still too expensive, they had no way to get to the provider, they couldn’t get an appointment, or the provider didn’t accept their insurance.

Nearly one in 10 adults living in rural America also report that hospitals in their community have shut down in the past few years.

Part I of Life in Rural America found that the most pressing concerns of rural Americans are jobs, the local economy and addiction. It also found that they are largely optimistic about their families’ and their communities’ futures. A majority expressed faith in their community to confront and overcome their issues.

This latest report reaffirms that such optimism abides. A majority of rural Americans believe they can make a difference, and they’re mobilizing that optimism. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed say that – while recognizing they need assistance from state and local government in confronting their communities’ drug and economic issues – they remain optimistic about the role they can play in improving those communities.

Half have volunteered time to an organization working to make their community a healthier place and nearly half have volunteered their time to a non-religious charitable cause.

Asked how much impact they think they can have in making their community a better place to live, almost two-thirds say they can make a difference.

“The way I look at it,” Ed Sivak of the Mississippi-based Hope Enterprise Corporation told the crowd gathered in Charleston on Tuesday, “there ain’t nothing wrong in rural America that can’t be fixed by what’s going right.”

Additional resources will be required, Sivak stressed, but within communities is “where the solutions start.”

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Rural America

Couple Traveled 100,000 Miles Exploring Rural America, Here’s What They Found

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Allentown, Pennsylvania. Photo: James and Deb Fallows

Deborah and James Fallows wrote a book called “Our Towns A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America.”

The husband and wife duo bought a small low-altitude plane and spent just over four years traveling 100,000 miles throughout small towns across America.

Before embarking on this journey, they traveled the world, looking at changing economies in China and elsewhere. James Fallows has been a national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly for several years.

In their new book, the Fallows quote Mountain Stage Host Larry Groce speaking about why he’s optimistic about the future of Charleston, West Virginia. Groce says in the last 10 years he’s seen a “Renaissance” in Charleston. That sense of hope for smaller, rural communities is shared throughout their book. 

Mural in Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: James and Deb Fallows

James Fallows said they saw a handful of cities, like Greenville, South Carolina, where the community was able to adapt to economic challenges and rebuild their local economy.

“Greenville 40 years ago was almost all textile economy. Now it’s almost no textile economy, but they have a lot of advanced manufactures there,” Fallows said. “That was a way they were sort of able to leapfrog.”

He said another example of a city that found a way to reinvent itself after a major economic collapse is Allentown, Pennsylvania, which used to rely heavily on its steel economy.

“More often what happens is that when a great big employer goes away, like has been the case in West Virginia with coal, there usually is not one big thing that takes that place,” Fallows said.

Workers at JQ Dickinson Saltworks, a business outside Charleston, West Virginia. Photo: James and Deb Fallows

“What we saw when we were in West Virginia in the summertime is that the hope for Appalachia, and for rural America, from what we’ve seen, is a diversity of smaller things, some of which will succeed. You don’t know which bet is gonna make it, so you make a lot of bets,” he added.

Thanks to Jan Pytalski, Author at 100 Days in Appalachia, for his help with this interview.  

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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