Where can I learn about issues in rural/non-urban USA and how to help?
December 12, 2016 10:56 AM   Subscribe

I'm from a big coastal city in the Northeast US (Boston). I want to learn more about life in the rural/non-urban US, what the issues are, who's addressing them, and how I can help.

A lot of election coverage discussed Americans in rural/non-urban areas (e.g., Appalachia, former factory towns, western Massachusetts in contrast to the greater Boston area) and issues of rural life, life in factory towns where the factory has gone, and related problems like poverty, lack of healthcare access, and others. I want to learn more, and I want to help. I don't know where to start. I don't have friends or family or personal history in any of these areas.

I'm interested in anything: blogs, news reporting, books, Twitter accounts, direct action groups like Remote Area Medical, advocacy groups, etc.
posted by cadge to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

Find out where people are getting and sharing information about their communities and themselves. Subscribe to the newspapers, find the FB groups, etc. Complement that with analysis from outside thone areas--demographic research, economics, things like that. Networks to tap include academic extension services, faith communities, and business and arts. There are often civic and nonprofit groups dedicated to strengthening communities with a regional lens. Consider that rural areas aren't just one thing so you might choose to focus in on a few areas at first.
posted by ramenopres at 11:20 AM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

For an overview of Hillbilly Elegy, see this Fresh Air interview.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:29 AM on December 12, 2016

I am also from a coast. It is very difficult to jump into a different community as an outsider and expect that your "help" will be immediately trusted and welcomed. The most helpful thing for me in learning more about the non-urban US was to actually move there and experience what the vibe and mentality was like over several years. I could have read about it from an academic perspective all I wanted, but meeting people in a less-othering context over a period of years (because I was there for a long(er) haul and trying to form my own sense of community there as well) helped me grasp this in a different way. I did home visits, talked to people, befriended people, spent a lot of time thinking about how condescending the coasts can be towards Middle and rural America. There isn't any checklist of information to acquire... much of it involves soaking things in. It was challenging and sometimes lonely--when I told people where I was from their eyes would widen and they'd euphemize, "oh, wow, that's very different!" My experience is probably not going to have left me with a comprehensive understanding-- far from it (I am also a visible minority, which probably made a difference) but still, it was invaluable and broadened my perspective.

If moving and/or extended visiting isn't possible, I would recommend reading the local newspapers and also reading about the history of the small towns. I would still make an effort to visit if possible-- many small towns often have historical societies and they are run by very passionate volunteers who have a long family legacy in their respective towns. While in the area you could also attend a few county fairs, learn about agriculture and/or mining, learn about the immigration history of the area, read about the role of religion in the area, and/or visit farms.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:33 AM on December 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

I live in a rural area. My town is the big town (4500 people) in a county of significantly smaller towns. My town voted 1/3 for Trump. It's a town with decent opportunities (there are still some jobs here) but also a lot of poverty, some drug problems and the usual class divisions. Rural areas can be (not always) less racially diverse because (among other reasons) there's a lot less turnover in population. There are other lack-of-diversity issues (religious, LGBTQ, disability) as well. I grew up in a rural area in MA (now just about in Metro West) lived in Seattle and then moved to Vermont about 20 years ago to a town of 150 people and later moved here. You're welcome to come up for a visit.

Vermont is an unusual state in that there are literally no really big cities, the largest one is 40,000 and the state capitol only has 8000. It's also unusual in that there are a lot of people here who are well-educated which isn't as true in other rural areas, particularly the rural south. The Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont publishes some good stuff though it's been slowing down lately. I'm also interested in librarianship (also many specific issues in that area) and there is a group called the Association for Small and Rural Libraries. The big thing they do is a conference and you can see some of the issues affecting small and rural libraries. Some are the same as in larger libraries, many are not.

The largest issues I encounter, in my small niche, is exactly the issue you are talking about: rural people and their concerns and issues don't make "the news" in the larger world unless they are at a crisis level. People in rural areas don't often travel to hobnob with people in larger and more influential areas. Part of what makes the digital divide the digital divide is that people literally don't even believe that so many people are still offline (they're not all rural but many are) and without these people being in positions of being able to advocate for themselves decisions get made without their input. 15% of America is rural and this number is dropping but not quickly. However rural areas account for 72% of the US's landmass. Civics are a really big deal here as the community can only work if people pitch in to help. Everyone's taxes go to pay for the running of the town and we have Town Meeting annually to talk about money issues and other issues. I hold a small elected position in town. The VT National Guard had the second-highest mobilization rate per capita in the US (after Hawaii) in the Iraq War.

Here's another blog I found when I was poking around on this topic. It's got a lot of great browsable posts and didn't, after a quick skim, seem to have other overt agendas.
posted by jessamyn at 11:37 AM on December 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

i learnt a lot about chilean society (groups living relatively close geographically, but from different social classes) by reading a cultural anthropology book - it was surprisingly sympathetic, informative, and understandable. so i wondered if something similar existed for the usa. a quick search turns up abandoned in the heartland, postville: a clash of cultures..., and habits of the heartland along with their "also read..." links. i haven't read any of these, but maybe they will help.

also, thank-you for asking this question.
posted by andrewcooke at 11:51 AM on December 12, 2016

A few starting points in Appalachia and the South: Appalshop beautifully documents all of the best and worst parts of living here. The Highlander Center, in their own words, "serves as a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the U.S. South" and has spent decades training activists. Occupy the Hollers and Appalachian Voices are my sources for news on the fight against fracking, mountaintop removal mining, and other extractive industries. The Daily Yonder, The Bitter Southerner and Scalawag are all great sources of news about the the complicated culture and politics of the South.

But I'm from a city and moved to Appalachia by choice. My neighbors don't read this stuff. They read the church bulletin and they watch FOX. (...Really. Everyone. It's not just a stereotype.) I think ramenopres has a good point: Most of us don't think of ourselves as rural people who all have our rural-ness in common. We're Appalachian people, or Nebraskans, or born on the bayou; we're cattle farmers, miners, Dollar General employees; we are, overwhelmingly, Christians. The suffering's the same--loss of industry, the boom and bust of environmentally-destructive industries, shitty schools, shitty healthcare, rural brain drain--but the specifics are different. If we did think of ourselves as the rural "we," we would be a large constituency and would see different patterns and want different solutions. As it stands, we want a raise at the Dollar General and less-expensive prescriptions, and we want our kids to go to college and get the hell out of here.
posted by xylothek at 11:54 AM on December 12, 2016 [7 favorites]

You might check out the Iowa Public Radio program Talk of Iowa. You'll probably want to be selective: it's not only about rural issues, since most people in Iowa now live in cities and suburbs, and a lot of episodes aren't topical at all. There's plenty of arts and gardening coverage. (So much gardening coverage. I must be the only person in Iowa who doesn't garden.) The host, Charity Nebbe, grew up in a rural area, though, and she's attentive to rural concerns. So, for instance, there's this recent episode about the challenges of recruiting ESL teachers in rural areas or this one on the arts in (mostly) small-town Iowa.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:02 PM on December 12, 2016

It wont give you universal insights into the lives of non-urban people but in the wake of the NoDAPL protests I started following Indian Country Today on twitter and facebook.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 12:13 PM on December 12, 2016

Gemutlichkeit makes a lot of good points. I travel to really tiny towns for work a lot, and it's one of my favorite parts of my job. If you have some time, a road trip through the rural Midwest is one of the best things you can do in the US. Stay off the freeways, eat at greasy spoon diners and soft-serve ice cream spots (or the Pizza Ranch!), check out the roadside attractions, etc. As everyone else has said, there's a limit to how much you can learn by just blowing by, but it's a good start, and you can enjoy yourself at the same time. There are a lot of nice touristy places around the Great Lakes (Lakeside, Ohio; Traverse City or Grand Haven, Michigan; Door County, Wisconsin) where you could go to get a more traditional vacation and then branch out from there. A lot of university towns in the Midwest are also very desirable destinations (Madison, Lawrence, Bloomington, etc.), so check those out as well.

What xylothek said is important to remember as well. There's no sense of unity between people in rural areas. People in the Midwest are a lot different than people in the South or mountain West, and even within the Midwest, people in Ohio are different from people in Iowa. And of course, people living on farms are much different than people living in factory towns. Even within demographics, there's a lot of variation. A union worker employed at a factory that's still open (they exist, more common than the conventional wisdom would have you think) will have a much different experience than someone who has been laid off from a closed factory. So it's hard to give a broad overview.

Ultimately, though, if you reach out to people and treat them as someone you'd like to become friends with, rather than the subject of a sociological inquiry, they're likely to receive you warmly. As one of my clients in a small town near the large city where I live told me, "everyone in New Philadelphia has been to Columbus, but not many people from Columbus have been to New Philadelphia".
posted by kevinbelt at 12:50 PM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

If you would like a really sarcastic overview, Joe Bageant's Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatchs from the Class War is good. Rainbow Pie: a Redneck Memoir published right before he died is good too.

xylothek has a good point, there's no internal cohesion for blue collar people beyond the exurbs. As a Ozark hillbilly, I've got more in common with a Finnish yooper or a Hopi sheep herder than my cousin working in a bank in Kansas City, but we've never been able to hang together and become a unified political force. Now we're well on the way to becoming isolated pockets of relict cultures.
posted by ridgerunner at 12:55 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you for your suggestions, everyone! And just to clarify - I have no visions of being some swoop-in savior. Even if the only way I can help is to donate cash, I still want to understand the issues and find the most useful groups to donate to.
posted by cadge at 1:03 PM on December 12, 2016

Get involved with a needle exchange. Rural opiate addiction ain't so different from urban opiate addiction. Ones just a little newer.
posted by Puddle at 1:06 PM on December 12, 2016

I also appreciate the work that comedian Trae Crowder does talking about rural and southern issues. Here's his short video on how to reach rural America. Here's his take on Black Lives Matter.
posted by jessamyn at 1:10 PM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

Another vote for The Rural Blog, linked upthread by Jessamyn.
posted by PaulaSchultz at 1:57 PM on December 12, 2016

So, this is coming at your question from a different angle, but out of curiosity I watched the first few episodes of the Netflix sitcom The Ranch (with Ashton Kutcher), and it seems to be attempting to fill a pop culture gap for this population. It's set in a rural area in a red state, and the protagonists are decidedly white, conservative, and struggling financially. It is a sitcom (it has a laugh track, for one) and you may or may not find the humor particularly funny (it was hit or miss for me), but I found that it was interesting to me to watch a show where the main characters are rural.
posted by megancita at 2:10 PM on December 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

My first thought was Washington County, Maine, where 1 in 3 children lives below the poverty level. Here is an article from 2012.

Here is a 5-part series, talking about the huge increase in single mothers in Maine over the last several years.

The last article in the series highlights some programs that help single parents. One of them is Educare, in Waterville, Maine. It's an early childhood start program.

Another thought would be to go to a town office in your state (or in Maine!), and offer to donate to their heating oil assistance program. So many people here, families with young children, the elderly, etc., are in need of heating oil assistance. Most of these programs will provide one emergency load of fuel, 100 gallons, which might stretch out for a month or so in the very cold months of January and February. This weekend, it's expected to get to zero. I am always thinking about oil myself, and we keep a close eye on it. People who can't afford $200 worth of oil (it's about $1.80-$1.90 per gallon right now), have to pay a fee, $15-$20, to order less than 100 gallons, which seems cruel. Otherwise, they are stuck going to the gas station and buying kerosene or diesel, 5 gallons at at time, and praying it lasts until payday.

When we moved, we sold our used washer and dryer, to avoid a pick-up and removal fee. The man who came had 4 children, and his friend said, "what are you using for a dining room table?" Because we were selling our set, as our new place had furniture included. The man said, "an outdoor glass-topped patio set." So my husband sold him that, cheaply, and gave him our old grill, which we rarely used.

We're not rich ourselves, but we have enough to live on. If I were going to donate to anything, tho', it would be fuel assistance, or finding a needy family and buying them a load of oil. The hoops people have to jump through to get this assistance are pretty high -- if you have a vehicle, they turn you down, but how can you drive to your low-income job if you have to sell your car to buy heating oil?

Other things that come to mind are donating dry goods, like toilet paper and soap, etc., to domestic violence shelters. I've also heard that socks are welcome. People often arrive with very little, and they are allowed to go through and pick out clothing for themselves and their children. You could find a shelter in an impoverished area and make a donation to them, either goods or money. Thanks for wanting to help. We have thought about moving closer to Boston, but you have to find a job, and since my husband is almost retirement age, we're pretty much stuck here now, as the rents in Portland are too high for us to even consider moving back there.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:27 PM on December 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

The Horizontal World by Debra Marquart gave me a deep understanding of the place of land in rural culture.
posted by SyraCarol at 5:05 PM on December 12, 2016

My colleague Katherine Cramer lives here in Madison but has spent a decade sitting with people all over Wisconsin, talking to them about their politics and their worldview. Her book, The Politics of Resentment, is for obvious reasons something a lot of people are talking about right now.
posted by escabeche at 5:35 PM on December 12, 2016

I agree with everything Marie Mon Dieu says re: the need for assistance and donations of money, toiletries and/or basics like socks and underwear to shelters in Maine.

Also: food. The rate of food insecurity here is the highest in New England and 9th highest in the country. One in 4 Maine children is food insecure.

The Good Shepherd Food Bank has a wide reach in this regard: They distribute food to hundreds of pantries across the state and have a mobile food bank of their own. To donate or for more information, visit https://www.gsfb.org/

(Sorry for funky link on mobile)
posted by virago at 5:46 PM on December 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Portland (Maine) Press Herald did a good 10,000-foot view of food insecurity and how Good Shepherd and smaller groups are serving a need that's not going away. (It doesn't help that our governor is a mean-spirited Tea Party Republican who's obsessed with making sure that no aid goes to the "undeserving" ...)

Full disclosure: I work at the Press Herald but I had no involvement with this story.


(Another funky link)
posted by virago at 6:02 PM on December 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

There was a post (and subsequent discussion obviously) about Rural Studio here a while back that I took part in. Rural Studio might not be the quintessential example of 'issues in rural America' but it certainly is an amazing example of the niche that it fills within rural America's needs and how that can conflict with reality.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:56 AM on December 13, 2016

Here's the link to the Good Shepherd Food Bank of Maine.

Here's the link to the Press Herald story: Persistent hunger fuels sprawling food supply system for needy Mainers (Jan. 24, 2016).
posted by virago at 9:49 AM on December 15, 2016 [2 favorites]

The New Republic ran a great photo essay about rural Nebraska earlier this week that's worth checking out as an introduction.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:47 AM on December 16, 2016

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