Thursday, October 19, 2023

Literary Ruralism (Part XLII): The Injustice of Place

I've read several books about the impact of place on who gets ahead in life--and who does not.  I assign excerpts of many of these, for example, Sheryll Cashin's Place Not Race, to students in my seminar courses, Law and Rural Livelihoods and The First-Gen Experience in Scholarly and Popular Literature.  The famous economist Raj Chetty has also focused on zipcode as destiny.  

So I was particularly interested to see coverage in the Daily Yonder (a news source oriented to rural issues) of a new book by a famous sociologist who studies poverty and inequality, Kathryn Edin, and colleagues Timothy Nelson and Luke Shaefer:  The Injustice of Place:  Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America.  Here are some excerpts from early in the book that mention rural places specifically.  Indeed, what follows are the book's opening paragraphs:   

IT IS HARD TO SAY exactly when we first noticed the pattern. Just before we hit the outskirts of a Cotton Belt town, the fields would give way to a string of gleaming white antebellum homes with large lawns, old-growth trees, and grand entrances framed by columns reaching two or three stories high. Merging onto the majestic arterial boulevards leading into town, we would see more imposing homes presiding over meticulously manicured grounds. 

In Sparta, a rural hamlet near Augusta, Georgia, it appears as though someone has invested millions to restore an elegant Greek Revival home. New windows and shutters gleam. Yet just across the street lies a dilapidated shack, one room deep, with a sagging roof. Over in Demopolis, Alabama, sits the venerable Gaineswood, a massive structure known for its elaborate interior suites, including domed ceilings, remarkable decorative arts, and original antebellum furnishings. Left out of the photos on Gaineswood’s website and tourist brochures are the aging wood cottages in varying states of disrepair, the tumbledown trailers, and the sagging modular houses that flank the historic home.  (page 1) 

The scholars undertook in this book to study poor places, whereas they had previously studied poor people.  They also decided to study health in addition to income.  Here's more on their methodology:

To assess the level of disadvantage in a community, such as a county or a city, we combined traditional income-based measures with other markers, including health. Especially in the United States, health outcomes vary tremendously by race, ethnicity, and income. In 2008, life expectancy for highly educated white males was eighty years, but only sixty-six for low-educated Black men, whose average life span resembled numbers seen in Pakistan and Mongolia. In 2011, the infant mortality rate for Black mothers in the United States was comparable to that in Grenada and just a bit better than that in Tonga. The rate for non-Hispanic whites was much closer to that in Germany and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, a tidal wave of new research was showing that a person’s health is shaped more by their context—their income, family circumstances, and community characteristics, for example—than by their genetic profiles or the medical care they receive. 

Ultimately, as the scope of our study of place-based disadvantage grew, we chose to incorporate two well-measured health outcomes, one that captured conditions at the start of life and the other at the end. In a particular community, what were a baby’s chances of being born with low birth weight, which is closely associated with infant mortality and other threats to children’s health? In that community, how long could the average person expect to live? 

We also recognized the importance of measuring whether disadvantage in a particular place persisted for children growing up there. Especially in the American context, it is almost an article of faith that kids should have the opportunity to do better than their parents. Recently, a team of economists employed confidential IRS data to create a measure of intergenerational mobility (the chance that children born low-income could rise up the economic ladder) for every city and county in the nation. These researchers used tax records to follow children born in the 1980s through adulthood to see where they stood on the income ladder compared to their parents. It was already understood that there were big differences in intergenerational mobility by parental income, ethnicity, and race, but the most stunning revelation of this new research was how much variation there was by place. In some communities, a child born into poverty would probably stay low-income as an adult. Yet in others, they had a much better chance of reaching the middle class. It seemed clear to us that to measure the depth of disadvantage in a community, it would be important to include the rate of mobility from one generation to the next. (pp. 3-4) 

This follows several pages later--and reveals a rural surprise to the authors:  

Immediately, we could see from the rankings that the geographical pattern was stark. The first surprise—especially for three professors who had spent our careers studying urban poverty—was that the “most disadvantaged” places on our index were mostly rural. There is considerable poverty in cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. But in our apples-to-apples comparison, none of those cities ranked even among the 600 most disadvantaged places in the nation. For the most part, the only cities and urban counties to find themselves among the most disadvantaged were a relatively small number of industrial municipalities in the Northeast and Midwest, such as Cleveland, Detroit, and Rochester. 

Among the rural counties at the top of the list, what we found didn’t fit what most people think of as “rural.” While some of these were majority-white, many, indeed most, were communities of Black and Hispanic Americans. We could see, too, that many places with large Native American populations ranked among the most disadvantaged in the nation (19 of the top 200). Beyond these, though, not one community in the western part of the United States registered among the “most disadvantaged” (those in the top fifth). While some might say we ought to have considered the impact of the high cost of living on poverty—those costs are higher in some places—there are trade-offs. Although people pay more for housing in those places, there are at the same time structural advantages in those areas of the country, such as good health care systems, a more generous safety net, public transportation, and higher-quality schools. This, we think, is why some high-cost big cities like San Francisco and Seattle fall further down our index than expected. We also found that those living in the 200 most disadvantaged places on our index were just as prone to have major difficulties paying for housing as those in America’s 500 largest cities. 

Apart from predominantly Native American communities, the places that our index identified as “most disadvantaged” most often are found in three regions—Appalachia, South Texas, and the vast southern Cotton Belt running across seven states. (pp. 5-6) 

* * * 

Across rural America, monuments, celebrations, and museums are markers of local pride. Indeed, Crystal City has vigorously defended its claim to the title “Spinach Capital of the World” against upstart Alma, Arkansas—also a former spinach mecca that has erected multiple statues of Popeye. Yet in South Texas, the vast Cotton Belt, central Appalachia, and the Pee Dee region of South Carolina, these symbols celebrate a past that is fraught, to say the least. They commemorate the very industries that, for a century or more, spelled misery and hardship for thousands, if not millions, while profiting only a few. They memorialize the intensive resource extraction and resulting human exploitation that made these places America’s internal colonies. 

How did the identities of these communities become so bound to the economic legacies of the past? (p. 21) 

And, skipping to much later in the book, this is especially intersting regarding the diploma divide and how higher education is increasingly seen as a culprit: 

Most often, emerging leaders trying to set a new course have the odds stacked against them—as was the case with Cornejo’s coalition and later with the slate of La Raza candidates who came into office in South Texas in the early 1970s. People at every level are hoping for their failure: when they stumble, it is all the easier to blame the community for its own problems. Universities could certainly play a role in helping to equip local leaders with the tools needed to succeed, perhaps through a model like the USDA’s community- and university-based Cooperative Extension System. Recently, one community leader told us that while his state’s flagship university is not beloved in most rural towns, the extension service is immensely popular because it provides knowledge and resources the community values. Using university extension programs as a conduit for equipping local leaders might help higher ed prove its worth in many far-flung communities. (p. 237) 

Altogether, the book uses the word "rural" 67 times, many of which are in footnotes/end notes.  Here's a WHYY segment on the book.    

Edin's prior books did not pay particular attention to rural poverty or other rural issues.  She is perhaps most famous for Promises I Can Keep:  Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage (2005) (with Maria Kefalas); Doing the Best I Can:  Fatherhood in the Inner City (2013) (also with Nelson) and $2.00 a Day:  Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015) (also with Shaefer). 

Cross-posted to FirstGenCourse Blog.  

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