Commentary: Progressive plan for ending rural poverty — in America

  • Katherine Gallagher Robbins
Nov 28, 2017
Katherine Gallagher Robbins is the director of family policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

Economic hardship exists in nearly every American community. Families across the country have been devastated by medical debt, overwhelmed by unexpected expenses, or financially and emotionally shaken by the loss of a job. And the experience of economic insecurity — too little to eat, not enough money to turn the heat on, the stress of trying to make all the pieces fit together when they simply won’t add up — is familiar for far too many Americans.

But while economic hardship does not have geographic boundaries, certain communities face outsize challenges. Transportation to work or school might be particularly problematic in areas with few buses or trains. Economic insecurity might be driven by the soaring rents in some areas and declining home values in others. Families in some areas grapple with a lack of affordable, accessible child care to help them manage work and caregiving responsibilities, while others grapple with a lack of work due to a closed factory or community hospital.

The diverse face of poverty in America is why efforts to combat economic insecurity need to address not only the common issues faced by so many Americans but also the distinct needs of different communities.

To be sure, all Americans need health insurance, a safe place to live and food on their table to feel safe and secure. They all deserve access to good jobs and opportunities to help them thrive. In fact, the Center for American Progress has a progressive blueprint that shows how to make this happen — how we can invest in people and communities across the nation by taking steps such as raising the minimum wage, improving the unemployment insurance system, breaking the link between mass incarceration and poverty, and more.

But while rural communities would benefit from these steps, they also have distinct needs and priorities that require special focus. Poverty is higher among prime-age workers in rural America compared to urban and suburban areas, and rural communities have lagged behind urban communities in job growth since the Great Recession. Rural residents are disproportionately likely to have a disability, which can both lead to and result from poverty.

Though the nation’s opioid epidemic touches every corner of the country, it has hit rural communities particularly hard, leaving economic and emotional devastation in its wake. For rural areas, a special focus on boosting job growth — especially policies that would create good-quality jobs, provide a fair shot for workers with disabilities, and provide access to treatment for substance misuse to help people participate in the workforce — is particularly important.

And, of course, policymakers must not ignore the diversity of rural areas, too. Solutions best suited for addressing poverty in the Mississippi Delta may differ from those that would work best for Native American or Appalachian communities.

What is abundantly clear is that proposals put forth by President Donald Trump would be harmful to people in rural and small-town America. CAP’s research found that in the rural and small-town counties that Trump won in the 2016 election, one-third of families live paycheck to paycheck — a rate that is 24 percent higher than in urban counties.

Our analysis showed that Trump’s proposed policies would make struggling rural residents’ circumstances worse, costing their areas clean-energy job opportunities, reducing people’s access to quality health care, making housing less affordable, increasing hunger among kids and seniors, and more.

CAP’s work has also revealed that veterans, who disproportionately live in rural areas, would be harmed by Trump’s budget proposals, which slash programs they and their families rely on to access job training, put food on the table, and help make ends meet.

Finally, another CAP analysis has shown that Trump’s budget would completely eliminate organizations that have been the bedrocks of rural economic development, such as the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority, and pull the plug on key POWER Initiative programs, severely undermining coal communities and other rural areas.

Ending poverty in America — including rural poverty — is about making smart policy choices that serve the individualized needs of communities.