America is failing poor, rural, white communities.
Of course, I do not intend to ignore the poverty and discrimination facing rural, black communities. Such communities suffer not only from the challenges I will mention in this piece, but also endure the deep roots of racial discrimination that black individuals and communities face in all geographic locations. In this way, rural, black America faces exacerbated versions of the economic, educational and social barriers rural, white America does. The difference though, is political narrative; mainstream progressivism has recognized and proposed policy solutions to issues of race. I would argue that this progressivism has failed to do the same for rural-urban differences, predominately because they fear being labeled as ignoring or unsympathetic to racial discrimination; in essence, they fear that a nuanced, candid discussion of our nation’s rural-urban divide will see a racist label slapped on it.
Moreover, poverty exists everywhere in our country. It affects people of all races, genders, religions, educational levels, sexual orientations and ages. Historically, poverty has impacted particular communities more than others. Again, the most salient example is African Americans, whose poverty was and is rooted in decades of slavery, convict leasing, Jim Crow-era legal discrimination and mass incarceration — what Michelle Alexander and others have labeled as the “new Jim Crow.”
Poverty is framed as well for valid statistical reasoning as a problem for immigrant communities. The list of typically recognized poverty-stricken demographics goes on and on: single mothers, drug users, high school drop outs, low-skill workers and the physically disabled.
But poor, rural, and largely white communities fail to garner this recognition. This is not to say these communities are solely white, but, in 2010 studies, 79 percent of residents in areas classified as “rural” or “small-town” were white. So, just as we often characterize urban poverty as black, despite many white people living in those areas, I think it is fair for me to say we are failing poor, rural and white America.
These communities are angry for good reason. Poverty rates in rural America have been higher than those in metropolitan America over the past 50 years. In many states, wages are lower and effective tax rates are higher for rural communities.
Health care costs have been cut for many across the country, but have increased for rural populations as a lack of competition in sparsely populated rural environments allows providers to maintain or raise pre-Affordable Care Act costs. Though education spending has been slashed across the country, rural schools face particular challenges. Rural areas struggle more to attract qualified teachers because of large distance from urban, higher-educational hubs, geographic distributions with low population spread and small, homogenous environments. As a result, students from rural areas are less likely to attend college or receive a bachelor’s degree.
For good reason poor, rural, white America is angry.
And the Democratic Party has, in large part, ignored it. It has shaped its narrative and rhetoric around poor communities of color, which is understandable; those communities have endured unimaginable systemic oppression since our nation’s beginning. It is difficult to speak on this issue without marginalizing the struggles of African Americans and other individuals of color.
Republicans, though, provide poor, rural, white America with narratives ranging from moderate conservatism to the nationalistic, anti-“other”, fear-mongering faux-conservatism we see in Donald Trump’s and Ted Cruz’s campaigns. So even though it can be despicable and anti-American, the Republican narrative at least acknowledges the struggles of rural, white America.
It makes sense that this narrative appeals to many members of rural, white America. Often without access to a decent education or to diversity, it makes sense that those most harshly affected by globalization yearn for a time when America focused inward; it makes sense that they see government bureaucracy, which repeatedly ignores them, as wholly negative; it makes sense that they do not support environmental legislation, which only tangibly affects them by cutting coal or oil jobs in their communities it makes sense that they reject policies like affirmative action, because they have never seen the value of diversity and likely feel that they have had their poverty overlooked in favor of others. It makes sense that, with no other narrative, they identify with the only political agenda that acknowledges their hardships.
So in this climate, it is up to the Democratic Party to create a new narrative: a narrative based on the fundamental liberal values of freedom, individual agency, equal opportunity and socio-economic mobility. A narrative backed by the statistical truths that diversity increases productivity, that foreigners and immigrants enrich our economy and culture, that religious difference is rooted in love, not hate or violence or terrorism. A narrative of compassion, understanding and humanization.
Isaiah Fleming-Klink is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. Vanguard Voices appears every other Tuesday.