Updated: Nov 15
By Hayden Larkin
When you think of rural mid-America, you most likely think of quaint and homely areas filled with farms and crops. A place that is often idealized as soft and warm. Somewhere to fall in love with someone and raise a family together, the epitome of the American dream. For many, however, that dream doesn’t exist; these quaint places are full of poverty, lack of job opportunity and bigotry. For these people, the American dream has been dead for a long time and has now malformed into a contorted shadow of its former self – a nightmare.
The difficulty of these people’s lives may not be apparent or even that special when you look at the socioeconomic conditions of working-class people across the country. However, these people are often ignored when these issues are brought forward. We tend to hyperfocus on the metropolitan cities like Los Angeles or New York when talking about things like housing or wages, but the population of the rural Midwest is hit even harder due to a lack of fruitful job opportunities without a post-secondary education.
In the Rust Belt, for example, the steel and automotive industries had a hard time during the great recession losing about 400,000 jobs between 2000 and 201, according to a report in 2012 from the Economic Policy Institute. While the industry has seen steady growth since then, the damage of Chinese subsidization and labor exportation had already been done. As the labor market trends digital and away from manual labor, people are having a hard time holding jobs in the Midwestern industry. A lot of these smaller counties that are hit by this crisis are now struggling to make ends meet. The chances of a corporation giving jobs back to thousands of people is highly unlikely, and those who have been laid off aren’t going to get their old jobs back any time soon. Many of these people are able to work in factories, but just as many are stuck in poorly paid menial jobs. To take two examples of rural counties and their economic hardship, Clinton and Ogemaw county from both Pennsylvania and Michigan respectively have average individual incomes of $26,000 and household incomes of around $50,000 according to Stastita. While that may seem like an average amount, it’s not taking into account basic necessities. For renting just a two-bedroom home, without spending 30% of their income in either of these counties, it’s around $30,000 of annual income needed (averaging between the two), according to a comprehensive study performed by the National Low Income Housing Coalition oth of these counties need around a $15 minimum wage to account for just the housing while both states are stuck under $10.
Graphic from Dribble
Housing and crises are just some examples of how rural Americans are kneecapped; they also lack strong wages to help economic mobility. About 73 million Americans work hourly wage jobs and 1.1 million of them make exactly or even less than the 7.25 federal minimum wage as sourced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, with 22% of Americans being hourly wage workers and large multinational corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s sneaking into these rural towns with a dying labor market and being able to exploit millions of people, they’re afraid. People’s financial security is in the air, they can barely supply for their families often having to borrow money for a $1000 emergency, according to Bankrate’s January Financial Security Index from last year. These frustrations boil up into a want for a change, a want for new leadership. The desire for more combined with socioeconomic frustration leads them to turn to the wrong people, turn to those who act against them.
It’s common knowledge that rural areas tend to vote red during elections. These voters believe Republican candidates will act out of their interest, which isn’t always the case. They are correct that establishment Democrats do not make decisions that benefit them, cite the recent vote on minimum wage and moderate Democrats blocking it as a good example. Republicans, however, have acted more often against the interest of working people for decades. Many of them are anti-union, target poor kids like the ones in the counties for military service, and choose the benefits of the rich and corporations of them many times. Trump’s Tax Cut and Job Act (TCJA) in 2017 according to Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the United States saw the richest 20% gaining 72% of the total tax cuts while the bottom 60% gaining a measly 15% . Republican candidates pocketed millions during COVID’s peak, a primary example being ex-Georgia congresswoman Kelly Loeffler getting millions of dollars in stocks after essentially insider trading after a COVID briefing. In short, conservative ideologues are preying on these people stuck in horrible conditions that provide so little. They labor for hours and hours, slaving away for corporations only for the people they trusted to lie to them, hurt them, and make them act against themselves by manipulating their desperation to anger and targeting it in the wrong direction.
How is this fixable? How can all of the damage that politicians and corporate entities do be rectified? Fiscal policy is the start, investing in people as people and handing them opportunities is the way to go to help. When you look at other comparable countries like the Nordic nations or even our neighbors up north in Canada, they provide cheaper and oftentimes free necessary social services. Medicine, post-secondary education, and properly paid labor and worker’s rights are readily available with little to no negatives toward consumers or everyday people. These are people, whether you politically align with them or not. They’re people, and they desperately need our help. We should act out of the interest of making sure people are cared for, can provide for their loved ones, and achieve the real American dream— life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
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