Saturday, December 23, 2017

United Nations report highlights rural poverty and inequality.

To anyone who has followed my writing and the issues that I highlight, it should come as no surprise that the United States is home to massive inequality and dire poverty. Despite these issues being prevalent and widespread, awareness and action on them has been sparse and almost non-existent. The poor are often framed as "lazy" and their issues are often blamed on a moral failing and not on the systemic issues that work to suppress class mobility and access to basic resources.  While this has often fallen on the deaf issues of our political leaders, they have not gone unnoticed by the United Nations who sent a special envoy, Australian law professor Philip Alston, to investigate. His report is available here.

Before diving into the report, I will share the Alston's characterization of how the impoverished are treated by the United States political system, "[t]he rich are industrious, entrepreneurial, patriotic, and the drivers of economic success.  The poor are wasters, losers, and scammers.  As a result, money spent on welfare is money down the drain.  To complete the picture we are also told that the poor who want to make it in America can easily do so: they really can achieve the American dream if only they work hard enough."

The most dire poverty in the United States exists in rural communities. For as long as the American government have tracked poverty rates, rural areas have always been the most impoverished. Living in a rural community also increases the likelihood of being in poverty among every ethnic group and is grossly high among communities of color. No matter which geographic region you happen to live in, you are more likely to be in poverty if you live in a rural community. Rural poverty is also deep and persistent with 85.3% of "persistent poverty counties" being in rural communities.

While Alston's visit did not exclusively focus on rural communities, he did spend time in parts of rural Alabama and West Virginia. While in Alabama, Alston observed homes that "were surrounded by cesspools of sewage that flowed out of broken or non-existent septic systems.  The State Health Department had no idea of how many households exist in these conditions, despite the grave health consequences." He also noted that the issue avoided appearing on the political radar because the affected communities were rural and disproportionately African American. UNC Law professor Gene Nichol observed similar neglect in Brunswick County, North Carolina in 2013 where despite economic growth more broadly, the African American population was seeing increases in poverty and a degradation of their own environmental living conditions. In both Alabama and West Virginia, Alston also observed that many rural residents were not connected to public sewage or water supply systems. In my own experience, this is not terribly uncommon in the rural South. In my own upbringing in North Carolina, my childhood home was not connected to a public sewage system and while we did have access to a public water system, there were people within a half of mile who did not.

Alston also discussed access to high speed internet in West Virginia, but regrettably not in Alabama. Here's a shocking (or perhaps not so shocking) statistic from Alston's report- 48% of rural West Virginians lack access to broadband internet, this compares unfavorably to only 10% nationwide. This is a huge impediment in 2017 America. This means that rural West Virginians have a harder time finding and applying for jobs, accessing the massive amount of information that exists, free of charge, on the internet, networking with people all over the world, and the limitless other things that the internet allows you to do. A May 2017 Pew Research Poll sheds a bit more light on this topic. They found that only 58% of rural adults use the internet, high speed or not, on a daily basis while 76% and 80% of suburban and urban adults respectively do so. The Pew study even notes that the lack of ability to access broadband internet is responsible for the discrepancy in those numbers. When Alston asked if there were any plans to improve broadband access, he was pointed to a report from 2010. It was clear that West Virginia had not considered the problem and appeared to not even care. However, in spite of the state government's negligence of the issue, 27 rural counties in West Virginia have actively sought funding to expand their broadband networks.

In West Virginia, Alston noted the lack of voter participation and when he asked a local official why this is so, he was told that poor people had just given up on electoral politics. It is perhaps unsurprising that the rural poor have largely withdrawn from a system that ignores their concerns and does little to help their quality of life.

I will wrap up by noting an observation that Alston made in a later NPR interview. The United States of America has an appalling low rate of social mobility, an embarrassment in the developed world. We live in a country where your ability to succeed in life is largely dependent on your social class of origin and that should give anyone cause for concern. For many, the "American Dream" is as mythical as Santa Claus, something that is nice to believe in but not really there. 

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