Poverty is no new story in America. From our founding to today, poverty has always been a problem in the US and today it is often worse than in the most recent past. To begin comparisons, policymakers and activists have to reach back to the Great Depression and the 1890s. Poverty in America is often hidden behind leased iPhones, cheap cars, cheap housing with roommates or family and cheap consumer goods. Poverty doesn’t always look like the picture many people hold of being poor in their minds. However, poverty in America is a real, grinding crisis that is having and adverse affect on the lives of real people.

Does the land of the free including the freedom to starve?

America is founded on freedom. Freedom is often talked about. However, for poorer people, especially those in rural areas, the talk of freedom and liberty doesn’t solve the real problems that they face. As western nations go, the US has far fewer social safety nets than other western, first-world nations. Food access, education, and healthcare often aren’t available in rural areas and there are no programs in place to solve the problem. Many local government officials don’t care or cite laws that are not enforced. In America, there is no right to food, water, shelter, or sanitation. All of those things must be earned and for those that cannot afford those things, often, they simply go without. In many ways, America is becoming a 3rd world country depending on where people live. While America remains a wealthy first-world nation for some, it is a 3rd world nation for others. This was recently highlighted by a UN report.

To highlight the poverty experienced by Americans and especially in rural areas where services are few, housing can be poor, and transportation is only by car, the UN Special Rapporteur traveled to the poorest areas in the United States. In this video we found, the UN arrived at a county in Alabama where local sewage ends up in the yard of poor black families. One woman doesn’t even have a septic system. The waste merely drains out of a pipe. This is descriptive of the poverty that many Americans, especially in rural areas face.

Rural Americans Left Behind

Many Americans are being left behind as Americans move to cities and towns and villages empty out. The economy has changed and left rural areas behind. For those who have not urbanized, the struggle is very real. Their communities are shrinking and often major employers have long left these towns for overseas operations or operations elsewhere. This has left people with only minimum wages jobs available. Their only option? Move or simply suffer. There have been few programs to revitalize these communities. Communities need new jobs and job retraining. These communities need investment in education and the ability for people to build a life in these small towns. However, the economy is changing and cities big and small are reaping the benefits while smaller communities are being left behind.

Photo by qimono on Pixabay

A drug crisis

When we talk about the War on Drugs, that statement often conjures up ideas about cartels shipping drugs across Mexico for street sale in the United States. However, the new drug war has a source far closer to home. Purdue Pharma recently settled billions in court with those suing the company for their sales and distribution of popular pain killers. Many people became hooked on the powerful drugs. The drugs have the same ingredients as heroin. Instead of street drugs dealers, the first drug dealers were doctors at the behest of companies like Purdue. The opioid crisis has torn through rural communities like a hot knife through butter and has left deaths and addicts in its wake. When the pills were no longer available, people turned to heroin. This has led to deaths, bouts of rehab, and people struggling to put their lives back together.

In this video from the Washington Post, Trump and non-Trump voters discuss the struggles of living in a rural community that is simply dying out.

How to repair rural America

One of the biggest mistakes made during the Great Recession was the lack of programs to meaningfully help Americans. In the decade since even less has been done to mitigate the economic changes that have created tremendous wealth for some and left others behind. In the years after Wrld War II, companies left cities for cheap land outside of the cities. This helped many towns grow but as those jobs disappeared as the economy became more global, these towns started dying in the late 1980s. The decline is now protracted and many of these towns and cities simply may not survive. However, this doesn’t have to be the story of these towns. These places and these Americans can be saved. The economy will continue to change with AI and automation. The global economy will be changing as well and that presents both challenges and opportunities for all parts of America.

There are strategic programs that can be put in place to make this possible:

  • Universal Healthcare
  • Housing standards with government grants to improve housing
  • Expanded SNAP program
  • Increases in education funding
  • Grants to companies to move to smaller towns

However, one thing is clear. Simply working hard will not solve the problem. Rural Americans make important contributions to the economy. Working hard is a big part of the American ethos and no one knows about hard work more than rural Americans who often work blue-collar jobs. This time, more hard work is not going to solve the crisis. Specific policies will help these towns and cities and the people that live in them. Those changes should be the focus of everyone.