Rural America needs our help

Most of the nation's land mass is outside cities and suburbs, but its political representation is doing the countryside no favors.

Rural America faces a crisis that the rest of the country must address. (Photo by Markus Petritz on Unsplash)

About half of Americans live in the suburbs, which is how I would describe my Upstate neighborhood. Still, if you’re from the city, you might be surprised to know that there’s no public water service to our suburban home, nor a local police department or professional firefighters to protect us. If we need a cop, we can call the county sheriff, whose small road patrol covers 665 square miles. And if we oversleep, the neighbors’ rooster is on the job. Some people would consider us country folk. I would be proud to claim that.

Still, it felt like a slide into luxury when we came in from 15 miles further east some two decades ago, a move we made in part because there weren’t any babysitters out in the hills, nor any stores nearby to buy a quart of milk. Besides, I was tired of chopping through seven cords of wood each winter to heat our home. Maybe the breaking point came on the night we called an ambulance and waited 25 minutes for a couple to show up in a Chevette with an oxygen tank under the hatch.

Which is to say that I’m pretty familiar with the challenges that go along with making your home in rural America — that share of the United States that comprises 97 percent of our land mass but that is home to only 19 percent of the population.1 There are benefits to country living that many people cherish: freedom from urban congestion and light, for starters, yielding wondrous starry nights and crystal clear mornings. But as we read about well-off urbanites responding to the pandemic by bidding up home prices in rural America, it’s fair to note that rural life has its drawbacks.

One of those disadvantages is a lack of political power — or, more precisely, the kind of representation in this democracy that doesn’t do you much good. By many measures, the people who seem to speak for the people of rural America aren’t helping fix what ails them.

In fact, this week AARP New York issued a report that labeled life for people over age 50 in the rural areas of my state a “crisis.” It’s not unique to New York, by a long shot, but it’s acute here: Among older New Yorkers, rural residents are sicker and more disabled than their counterparts in cities and the suburbs, the report found, and they lack equal access to such services as hospitals, telehealth and reliable broadband. Nor are things getting any better: Limited economic opportunities are prompting younger residents to abandon the countryside to find work elsewhere, dividing families by generation and leaving rural areas older and sicker, the study reported.

Rural residents are more likely than city dwellers to die prematurely from the five leading causes of death, AARP found. Diabetes is 17 percent more prevalent in rural areas than in cities. There are half as many hospitals for critical care for rural New Yorkers as there are for residents of New York City, and the number of doctors available to rural residents is shrinking — even as access to telehealth in rural communities is more limited than it is elsewhere.2

You would think that this would present an opportunity for smart politicians to respond to such obvious needs. Yet even as AARP was releasing its study this week, The New York Times was reporting that rural America was becoming increasingly uncompetitive in politics. Even though some of President Joe Biden’s policy priorities seek to address the very issues that plague rural residents — priorities that are blocked in Congress by the Republicans who dominate rural politics — the share of rural voters who would even consider voting for a Democratic candidate is shrinking. “Many of the ideas and issues that animate the Democratic base can be off-putting in small towns or untethered to rural life,” the Times noted.3

Rural voters aren’t numerous enough on their own to influence policy much, and if they’re not swing voters, neither party needs to court them energetically to win national elections. That leaves rural communities all but powerless nationally, even if they can affect the red or blue tint of their own states.

Further disabling for rural Americans, the culture wars that animate political activity in the United States these days aren’t connected to the issues that most vex rural communities. Parents are packing school board meetings — in rural areas as much as in suburbs — to complain that a mask or vaccination mandate is an assault on their freedom, or to insist that their kids’ brains will be poisoned if they learn that race was a key element of U.S. history. Those fears and complaints aren’t well-grounded, in my view, but there’s also this: None of that conversation goes to the issues that truly ail rural America. They’re sideshows to what ought to be drawing the attention of our neighbors, but that aren’t being addressed by their elected representatives.

Brian Alexander, author of a recent book that deeply probed rural healthcare through the prism of a single hospital in a small Ohio town,4 told me in an interview this week that his research had found that no more than one-fifth of health outcomes rely on direct medical intervention. “It’s the American economy that is killing us,” he said. As the rich have gotten richer since 1980, working class wages — affecting most of the people in rural areas — have stagnated. Predictably, that has left ordinary citizens without the resources to support their families and maintain their health.

“We have taken away in this country hope, dignity and community, and we’ve given people guns, opioids and meth,” Alexander said. “You are not addressing the social determinants of health if you are not lobbying your elected representatives to raise wages. We should improve housing, mandate vaccines, raise taxes and control drug device and medical care prices. We should lower the cost of higher education. We should make laws to rectify America’s scandalous inequality.”

This sounds a lot like an agenda that a progressive Democratic politician might tout. And you might imagine that hiking wages, cutting healthcare costs and improving housing would appeal to people in all parts of the country. But that conversation isn’t getting through to rural Americans for two key reasons.

First, Republicans have proven immovable on issues fundamental to the Democratic base that are less appealing in the countryside — matters that are vitally important, but that can’t be the Democrats’ sole focus if they hope to hold power for more than the year remaining in this term of Congress. Assuring human rights and democracy for all and protecting the planet from climate devastation are essential to fulfilling the American promise and to our very survival, but the conversation needs to be expanded further. Like this: An aging diabetic farmer without savings deserves access to healthcare as surely as an unmarried pregnant woman does, but only one of those patients motivates most Democratic donors. Those engaged in the hard work of our political system ought to be able to focus on not only what speaks to justice in their own neighborhoods, but also to the bread-and-butter issues that affect those beyond.

The second impediment to progress in rural America is related; it lies in the determination of the right-wing media, egged on by its political champions, to fan the flames of the culture wars, regardless of where it may lead. As a journalist for more than four decades, I’m reluctant to blame the media for society’s ills. But Fox News and other media outlets on the right aren’t playing by any rules of fairness, nor do they honor standards that long guided professional journalism in America. They’re propagandists, advancing what MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace, who was communications director in George W. Bush’s White House, this week called a “toxic stew of grievance and violent rhetoric.”5 This is dividing America, so that it’s hard to imagine how we can ever restore civility. (An aside: Yes, I blame Rupert Murdoch. Has any immigrant in our history caused more damage?)

Oddly, though, that geographic shift underway since the start of the pandemic may help us recover a bit. As more urbanites move into rural areas, they’ll demand the sort of services that they’ve been accustomed to having — including better healthcare, broadband service and adequate housing for the people they will depend upon to support their communities. By the way: Small-scale, direct-to-consumer agriculture is an important part of the emerging rural economy, and it is developing as a result of consumer preferences and tax incentives.

What can most help rural America, of course, is for those who hold political power to address the inequality that forces families apart and leaves small communities dying. The same issues that confront rural areas are key to urban improvement — including jobs, healthcare, childcare and housing. The opportunity to address those issues is in the hands of the Congress, and it ought to be seized by the representatives of the suburbs and cities, for they will at the same time be helping their constituents and the rural communities so in need.

America was founded, after all, as a rural nation, and our government was designed to be responsive to it, as Thomas Jefferson made clear. “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries as long as they are chiefly agricultural,” Jefferson wrote to James Madison, “and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America.”6 The land is still there, and its residents are desperate for our help — though most, being stolid country folk, would never say so. For a virtuous future, indeed, we need to support rural America.

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Dispatches from our common ground *

Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.

This week, we share dispatches from:

  • Opelika, Ala. (The Opelika-Auburn News,

  • Lincoln, Neb. (Lincoln Journal Star,

  • Tulsa, Olka. (Tulsa World,

  • Pensacola, Fla. (Pensacola News Journal,

NOTE: The complete “Viewed from Upstate” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!

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Sheriff gets backing as he bucks legislators’ efforts to loosen gun laws

State legislators in Alabama, as in a number of other Republican-led states, are keen to lift so-called “concealed carry” restrictions — meaning that they want people to be able to carry a concealed handgun without a permit. But the Lee County Commission voted 3-0-1 to support a resolution backed by Sheriff Jay Jones opposing the change. According to Tim Nail in the Opelika-Auburn News, Jones said the restriction had served law enforcement well for more than a half-century, and that giving it up would cost law enforcement a valuable tool. With states pushing forward to deregulate guns further across the nation, based on Second Amendment arguments, the effort seems sure to wind up before the federal courts.


Virginia school controversy infects Nebraska search

The search for a new school superintendent in Lincoln, Neb., was upended this week as a result of conservative pushback in Loudon County, Va., which was itself caught in political crossfire during the recent tight campaign for governor of Virginia. At issue, according to reporting by Zach Hammack in the Lincoln Journal Star, was the hiring of a search firm to help Lincoln’s Board of Education find candidates for the superintendent post. Because Lincoln had retained the same search firm that was used in Loudon County, a left-leaning blog site called “Seeing Red Nebraska” questioned the choice. Board members insisted that they, not the search firm, would make the final decision and that their choice would reflect Nebraska values.


Republican lawmakers urge clemency for death row inmate

Five Republican legislators have urged the Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, to grant clemency to convicted murderer Julius Jones, who is scheduled to be executed Thursday. They note that Jones’ accomplice has allegedly admitted to being the murderer in conversations with three “jailhouse snitches,” and say that avoiding the execution of somebody who may be innocent is a conservative value. Reporter Randy Krehbiel in the Tulsa World notes that the state Pardon and Parole Board has already twice voted to commute Jones’ sentence to life imprisonment, but that would require Stitt’s signature — and so far, he hasn’t said what he’s going to do.


Money in hand, officials balk at homeless rescue plan

With a growing homeless population in western Florida and millions of dollars in federal rescue funds available, charities active in homeless aid came together with plans to mitigate homelessness in Pensacola. But after a contentious five-hour meeting, the city council voted 5-2 to postpone allocation of $3.2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, According to reporting by Emma Kennedy in the Pensacola News Journal, an option remains to work with landlords to put the homeless into vacant housing elsewhere in the city, but the council faces a January deadline to act on an unregulated homeless encampment beneath a bridge on Interstate 110.

ENDNOTE … 11.13.21

A moving Veterans Day

Veterans Day seemed especially fraught this year. Perhaps it’s because of the rising awareness of how difficult it will be to bridge our gaps in America — and, thus, how precious are the gifts we have been given by those who have stood in our defense. Our Facebook accounts were flooded with photos of veterans — fathers, uncles, cousins, grandfathers — whom we were asked to salute. With gratitude, we did.

It also was poignant because of a particular event: the online world premiere that evening of a one-act opera commissioned by The Glimmerglass Festival, one of America’s great musical presenters and the cultural pride of New York’s Mohawk Valley. We watched “The Knock” in awe, with full hearts, and we recommend it as well worth your time — even if you’re not usually an opera fan. It is the story of a group of military wives awaiting news of their deployed husbands. You won’t come away from it humming any melodies, but you will not soon forget the characters you will meet or how they faced the awful circumstances life dealt them.

We thank all who have given so much of themselves for *our common ground, this America. And we thank you for reading.

-Rex Smith