Rural America is far more diverse than how it is portrayed in media and popular culture. This article is the second in the series Eradicating Rural Poverty: The Power of Cooperation. Coproduced by Partners for Rural Transformation, a coalition of six regional community development financial institutions, and NPQ, authors highlight efforts to address multi-generational poverty in Appalachia, the rural West, Indian Country, South Texas, and the Mississippi Delta.
There is much more to rural America than what is shown in The Wizard of Oz or Little House on the Prairie.
What do you picture when you think of rural? For many Americans, the term rural elicits simplified imagery of people and places—primarily White, living in small towns, focused on agriculture, and impoverished. A simplistic view is reinforced in the media and even by the US Census Bureau, which defines rural as “any population, housing, or territory not in an urban area.” However, rural is anything but simple.
There is much more to rural America than what is shown in The Wizard of Oz or Little House on the Prairie. Rural communities have varied local economies, which include manufacturing, healthcare, the service sector, and agriculture. Likewise, rural residents and cultures are far more diverse than depicted in popular culture.
Here, we offer an introduction to the actual rural America—a place that is diverse, creative, and full of promise. One of us works in Appalachia; one of us works in Indian Country. Neither of us recognizes the rural America we see in movies and television. And it’s time for that to change. As long as the true nature of “rural” remains obscured from outside policymakers and philanthropists, rural Americans will continue to face an uphill battle in effectively meeting their needs.
In America’s rural areas of deep poverty, over 60 percent of the residents are BIPOC.
The Rural America We Know
The pervasive notion that rural America is the White, homogenous place pictured on movies and television helps to perpetuate extractive, exploitative, and racist policies that harm many rural working-class residents, including millions of people of color.
The truth is that rural America contains a wide diversity of people and places. BIPOC families comprise 24 percent of our nation’s rural population. However, in America’s rural areas of deep poverty, over 60 percent of the residents are BIPOC. This disproportionality demands systemic solutions.
Because rural communities vary widely, solutions must be tailored to a community’s needs and the residents’ lived experiences. Policies that work in Appalachia, for example, with one set of economic ownership structures, will not always match those that work in tribal nations in Indian Country.
Our organizations, Oweesta and Fahe, are community development financial institutions committed to rural transformation. Both are directly connected to our communities through networks of Native CDFIs and Appalachian nonprofits. We are governed by residents and local leaders who inform our advocacy, development of solutions, and pursuit and deployment of investments.
Transforming living conditions in rural America requires many things. Over 43 years, the Fahe network in Appalachia has made an estimated $1.36 billion in community investments that have reached over 800,000 people. But more than numbers, what is important about the network is the capacity to address issues that affect our communities.
For example, it is no secret that the opioid epidemic has hit Appalachia hard. A recent federal report found that opioid overdose deaths in 2020 were 61 percent higher in Appalachia than the national average. In response, Fahe invested in developing substance use recovery services such as the Kentucky Access to Recovery Program.
This holistic program has reached 4,400 people since the program began in 2019—offering dental care, housing, transportation, and vocational support. Program benefits included “behavior change, physical and mental health improvements, relationship repair, regaining custody of children, provision of clothing, transportation, childcare, recovery support, and ability to gain employment and improve finances.”
Over the past 20 years, Oweesta likewise has supported Native communities in advancing transformative change. In particular, Oweesta has worked to empower Native CDFIs, some 69 of which now dot the country, to build community and individual wealth, create and retain assets, and enter the financial mainstream.
Native CDFIs today originate more than $70 million annually in direct loans. Oweesta has also developed a wide array of culturally relevant training curricula and capacity-building certifications. Since 2000, Oweesta has also partnered with First Nations Development Institute to create what is now First Nations’ Building Native Communities: Financial Skills for Families curriculum.
As Fern Orie, who founded the Wisconsin Native Loan Fund, one of those 69 Native CDFIs, has written in NPQ, “The biggest thing to understand about the impact of a Native CDFI in a community . . . is the transformative effect of having access to capital. When a Native CDFI comes to a community, suddenly there is a new resource that had never existed before. Buying a car, a home, or starting a business becomes achievable.”
Step by step, rural communities are building new community-controlled institutions that make a difference in residents’ lives. But still rural communities struggle against narratives that define rural America as quaint, rural America as bucolic, rural America as White. These false narratives create harm rural Americans in myriad ways.
One way is by discouraging philanthropic investment. We don’t know with certainty why foundations underinvest in rural America, but these false narratives are surely a factor. What we know for sure are the numbers: according to the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy, foundation giving in Appalachia averages $43 per person, compared to a national average more than 10 times that amount. Native American communities receive only about one-quarter of one percent of all philanthropic giving, though Native Americans make up 2.9 percent of the population.
But the harm goes far beyond a lack of grants. False narratives like the popular cultural tropes cited above also affect federal policy and self-esteem.
Clearly, policy follows perception: what is not perceived is not funded. If Native Americans are treated as invisible, for instance, why fund programs that serve them? The Indian Health Service, to take just one example, is vastly underfunded. A US Government Accountability Office report published in 2018 found that per capita federal spending for the Indian Health Service was half the Medicaid spending level ($4,000 less per person).
Dollars aside, it does not feel good to be described, as our regions often are, as “flyover states.” There is, in fact, a deep desire of people within our communities to be seen. This is why our coalition of CDFIs has entered the storytelling business and created our Everything Else: Stories of Rural America web portal.
Telling Our Stories
Our web portal features stories from rural America and the people we serve. This project exists to create sustained visibility by providing space for rural Americans to tell their stories and break down assumptions that divide our nation based on race, class, and geography.
For instance, Darrell Tsabetsaye is a member of the Pueblo of Zuni nation and a borrower at a CDFI within the Oweesta network. Tsabetsaye owns and operates a grocery store. Describing why he opened the store, Tsabetsaye emphasizes the importance of preserving Zuni culture and Zuni ways of eating: “My main concern is there has to be a healthy way of eating. There has to be a healthy way of promoting nutrition and understanding what goes into our food choices. That’s where I come in. Granted, big chains will thrive, but at least my store is an option for healthy eating.”
To create real change in rural areas of persistent poverty, it is important to change the popular narrative that hides the diversity of people and places, of the need and depth of the poverty.
Or take the case of the team in Wytheville, VA, an Appalachian town of just over 8,000 people in the southwestern corner of the state, which, with the help of loans and technical assistance from Fahe, has created the Open Door Cafe. It’s a restaurant where no person is turned away for lack of resources, and paying customers are encouraged to “pay it forward” by contributing $8 toward the cost of their meal. As local resident Frankie Odum says, “It’s a growing community that helps one another and I love that. I love that so much when there is [a] sense of community, a sense of friendship, and a closeness that you can’t find anywhere else.”
We believe that sharing these personal stories has the power to disrupt attitudes that drive policy and investment and ultimately result in widespread positive change.
To create real change in rural areas of persistent poverty, it is important to change the popular narrative that hides the diversity of people and places, of the need and depth of the poverty. We believe in collaboration at community, regional, and national levels to provide pathways to effectively engage with decision makers.
We have also learned that by working together, we can achieve scale to create systems that encourage the flow of capital and other transformative resources into the areas with both great need and great resiliency. One important learning has been that the people we serve, the need on the ground, and the capacity that rural CDFIs represent cannot remain hidden behind popular narratives that hide the wealth of diverse stories and experiences that make rural America what it is today.