Income Inequality in Rural America

There are many factors that have contributed to the levels of poverty we are seeing across the country.  However, that condition has been worse for non-urban areas in many ways so I will highlight some of the issues that have made it more of a problem in rural areas. Then we’ll move on to discuss the ways that affects rural communities as a whole as well as families and individuals and of possible solutions.

It’s important to think about what people rely on for income and work in rural America.  The small town of approximately 3,000 I was born and raised in, which is pretty typical of rural America, had eight factories within 9 miles and all but one was within walking distance of home for the majority of the people.  I’ve seen it firsthand so I’ll use this small town as an example to make these issues clear.

Those factories were virtually all union factories with union benefits, which included health insurance that also covered dental and eye care.  Generations of families here relied on those factories to support their families so we can’t begin to discuss rural poverty without looking at the issues that turned these small rural areas essentially into ghost towns with no means of earning a living.  There were farming and fishing jobs but very few made enough at those to support their families so the true lifeblood was manufacturing.  Incomes were never high but manufacturing was the mainstay of life where many didn’t have a high school education much less higher education.  If a person was willing to work a hard forty hours they could support a family.

There haven’t been many formal studies done on this issue so I’ll use data and charts from various sources to show the trends that brought these changes about.  Then we can explore sociological theories about the effects on society, communities, individuals and families

Disappearing Manufacturing Sector

The following chart shows the continuing decline in the manufacturing sector since 1990.

Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News & Analysis.

Decline in Construction

Contributing to the chaos was the decline in construction and we can see by the following chart that unemployment in construction skyrocketed compared to the overall rising unemployment.

The housing crisis along with a change in national priorities also brought about a decline in construction work which many younger men relied on for social mobility.   It was seasonal but paid much more than factory work.  This also caused a shortage of housing with higher rental costs because as people lost their homes there was more demand for rental properties.

Washington Post

Decline of Union Representation

These next charts show how as union representation declined the middle class shrunk and how this created the vast income inequality we see today.  Overall unemployment rates compared to job loss/job creation rates don’t tell the whole story because often the jobs being created pay less, have little or no benefits, may require relocating or commuting and may even be temporary.  Americans didn’t quit working; they just quit getting paid for it.

Mother Jones

This next chart shows how unionization declined from the Bureau of Labor Statistics survey.

It’s common knowledge that this trend continues to this day with even public unions such as school teachers, firefighters, police, garbage workers, etc. being targeted in budget cuts and legislation.  It’s important to note that many of those temporary and part-time jobs spoken of in the survey merely pay minimum wage with little or no benefits.

“Within the scope of the survey program the proportion of production workers declined from 64 to 45 percent between 1961 and 1984, whereas the proportion of nonsupervisory office workers remained at just under 20 percent. The share of administrative, executive, professional, and part-time employees, for whom unionization is least likely, grew from 17 to 37 percent of the survey employment.” (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Monthly Report 10/1985-Decline in Unionization)

A Picture of a Rural Ghost Town in the Midwest

At least partly due to these changes this small town is virtually a ghost town.  It was a small but thriving community for decades.  It had three grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, two lumber yards, a shoe store, two pharmacies, etc.

Now there isn’t even a grocery store because Wal-Mart moved out after they forced the other stores out of business.  The ones who could, moved to St. Louis to follow the work but many who couldn’t afford to live in the city drove an hour to an hour and a half each way every day to keep working.

Any increase in pay was more than erased by transportation costs. In addition, driving up to three hours a day and working 12-hour shifts they had no personal or family time.  The ones who caught rides to work, or walked, prior to that shift to urban areas had no vehicle so they didn’t have the option to commute.  They were more trapped than workers in urban areas because there is no public transportation.

Availability of Broadband Internet

Broadband internet access is crucial to economic recovery because of the growth in home-based businesses and work from home jobs.

However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics only 73% have internet available in their homes and only 42% have access to broadband internet service.

This is another problem specific to rural America because virtually all urban areas have access to broadband internet through cable or a telephone company.

Many rural areas only have what they can get through their telephone provider. Those telephone companies aren’t upgrading their equipment for broadband in rural areas because of a lack of competition due to the resurrection of telecommunications monopolies.

What can we do?

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language precedes thought (Schaefer, 2011, pg. 64) tells us the first thing we have to do is change the way we speak of these problems and the people caught in them so we can think about them in terms of solving them instead of blaming the victim.

Many terms have become so common today that we don’t realize how much they influence not only the way we think about people but the way we feel about them.  We have to stop using those terms, and listening to people who do, because it makes it easy for us to ignore the problems instead of solving them or even making them worse.  If we and our families aren’t hungry it makes it more comfortable for us to ignore the ones who are if we are busy blaming the victim by labeling the poor.

Terms like “welfare queen” have been around since we first declared war on poverty in the 1960s but there has been an entire language of thought and attitude developed from those first derogatory terms.  We have “personal responsibility” thrown around as if people choose to be poor when we know our entire economy tanked and there are many areas where there are no jobs.  We hear the terms “deserving wealthy” and “lazy poor” as if we didn’t know that Wall Street is making record profits while the people are starving.

We hear the term “food stamp president” as if we weren’t aware people are truly suffering and were when this president was elected.  When we hear those words we need to think about so many areas where people have no choice except to rely on food stamps and food banks to feed their children while we repair our broken economy and bring back jobs actually pay a living wage.

Those terms are “dog whistle” politics and racism.  It’s about labeling people as less (Schaefer, 2011, pg. 171) so their suffering doesn’t bother us.  We need to understand that so we can turn from the attitude it promotes, look at the issues and find a way to solve them.

Functionalist Perspective

The functionalist perspective views this kind of poverty as a necessary evil and that it keeps society stable, (Schaefer, 2011, pg. 13) but are we really stable?  Can we ever be a stable society when a rich man’s dogs eat better than a working man’s children?

Doesn’t this kind of inequality generate crime, sickness and death, mental and emotional disorders and a host of other societal ills that hold us back?

Doesn’t the lack of education allowing everyone to maximize their potential hold us back at home and in the global economy?  Yet we’re cutting education, laying off teachers and closing schools to try to fix the problem.

Do not these same issues promote racism and gender bias and allow them to flourish?

There has always been a segment of every population that was poor and I suppose that will always exist due to illness and personal issues.  But don’t we have it within our power to use social workers and physicians to heal or at least alleviate the conditions for those people also?

The Interactionist Perspective

If we look at these issues from the Interactionist Perspective, (Schaefer, 2011, pg. 15) we are looking at the way we interact with each other within society.

People seem to be easily divided by poverty and hard times yet some resist that tendency and find solutions by helping each other as in the “slugging” example.  (Schaefer, 2011, pg. 15)  “Slugging” is a way commuters carpool with strangers by being in a location where drivers can give someone a ride and in turn they are able to use the special commuter lanes.

Although “slugging” is virtually impossible in rural areas due to people commuting in different directions and working different shifts.  However, in rural areas people still barter with each other to help fill each other’s needs which is really what “slugging” is about.  Doesn’t that seem like a healthier and more productive way to address issues than shrugging and assuming it just has to be that way?  These good, hard-working people are sharing what little they have left to help each other but it’s not enough and never will be.


The Conflict Perspective


This perspective sees the issues as a struggle between the powerful and the powerless and isn’t that what it’s been since the dawn of mankind?

Capitalism sees this perspective as its enemy because they associate the perspective with Karl Marx and an overthrow of capitalism.  It is also associated with the old U.S.S.R. but have we ever really seen a true socialist system?  The old U.S.S.R. still had a few men with the money and power in control so it wasn’t truly a Marxist or Socialist government.


However, with FDR and The New Deal it seems like we found a way to regulate capitalism and give the working class a say in government that kept some justice and fair play within a capitalist system.  It seemed to work well for us for decades and it seemed we had found a perfect balance between the two.

Aren’t all civilized nations a combination of capitalism and socialist policies?  Is it possible to have a civilized society without some socialist elements?  There are some things we have to do as a nation because the job is too big for individuals and smaller groups or because they are so fundamental to a humane standard of living they have to be universal.  We hear a lot of talk about getting rid of FEMA and smaller government yet when their own state is hit with disaster the same people who are critical of helping other Americans in their time of need change their song immediately.


“The Truly Disadvantaged” (Wilson, 1987)-Tying it all Together

We lived on the Navajo Reservation in Northern Arizona for a time while my daughter worked a travel nurse contract.  There is a correlation between poverty on the reservations and poverty in rural and urban America.


The Navajo people, although considered “savages” by the Europeans who settled this country, have a very civilized culture as did most Native American tribes.  They don’t believe in beating their women and children.  They don’t believe in racism or sexism.  They don’t have a problem with greed as they don’t believe people can own essential elements of the earth.


You can’t buy land on a reservation.  If you want to live there they’ll give you a piece of land you and your family can live on forever if you choose but you can’t ever sell it.  If you want to leave it reverts to the Navajo Nation.


They don’t have many of the social ills we do but they still live in abject poverty.  The reasons for that are institutionalized discrimination, substandard education, cultural genocide and a disconnection from family structure.


Many people don’t know that they still take their children when they become school age, put them in “white man’s” boarding schools, and they only see their families on weekends and holidays until they graduate or drop out.  There is no other public school so if they want their children to have any education they have no choice.  However, the schools give them a substandard education and few graduate or have a decent enough education to go on to higher education of any kind.


At 18 years old they are turned out of the boarding schools with little education, weak family ties and a sense that they are less because they are “dirty, lazy, drunken Indians.”  Is it any wonder they continue to live in hopeless poverty with no future?

I contend that through outsourcing, destruction of the manufacturing and construction sectors, education cuts and labeling of the poor as undeserving of better those factors are turning the working class and the middle class into “reservations” of underclass in the urban and rural areas the same way it did the Native Americans.


In Wilsons’ book he talks about the underclass among black urban people and how the culture of urban black communities has changed.  He explains that in the 1940s and 1950s there were varied socioeconomic classes living as one community in the inner city black neighborhoods.  He goes on to say there were doctors, lawyers and professional people living in the same neighborhoods with the poor so there were many societal levels to the black society that contributed to its stability.  Then the professional black people began to move out to the suburbs.  Of course, the businesses and work followed them leaving behind a “reservation” of poor black people with no resources or opportunities.  I see this same correlation in rural America today.  We blame them for the crime when it’s the only way left for them to survive.

I’d like to point out that the destruction of unions reduced many of the people who used to be working class or even middle class to the working or non-working poor because they were left with jobs that didn’t pay a living wage or worse yet no job at all.  Extreme poverty breeds more poverty because the destruction of the family that follows exacerbates the problem.


If you take a good man who may not have a great education but he’s willing to work hard to take care of his family and you take away his means to do that it destroys his self-esteem, his sense of being a man.  Then he will most likely abandon his family or begin to drink to try to escape from the blow possibly even becoming abusive.  Then we have women trying to raise families alone in a devastated economy and the ratio of poverty rates for women doing that are horrendous.  At least some of that poverty is due to the institutionalized bias that pays women less and designates service jobs as “women’s work” but that’s a topic for a separate discussion.


His family suffers and their self-esteem takes a hit along with his because if he can’t do it how can they?  Does anybody really think garbage collectors are getting rich?  Yet we have states determined to take away their unions…their public voice…so they can also take away their means of livelihood.  Some political factions are even suggesting poor people shouldn’t be allowed to vote which is essentially removing their citizenship as punishment for being poor.

With the destruction of the manufacturing and construction sectors we have turned rural American into crumbling “ghettos” without hope also.  We are seeing the same labeling of the working class that was once reserved for blacks in the inner city.  We are all “black” now unless we’re part of the privileged few.

We have had underfunding and understaffing in inner city schools for decades and now we’re spreading that problem to the rural areas through education cuts.  Schools are not only losing teachers but actually being closed.

It’s a process that is destroying every level of our society section by section.  I contend our entire country is being turned into “reservations” with those “lazy, drunken, underserving” people trapped.  They are trapped with increasingly less opportunity for education, no work that will provide a living for a family and a decreasing level of self-esteem with increasing hopelessness.

In the late 1960s-early 1970s my mother helped organize the factory she worked at for the union.  I should note here that one reason they voted in a union was those women were working in a concrete block building with no open windows.   It was essentially an oven with temperatures in excess of 128°F in the summer yet the owner of the factory took their fans to St. Louis to put on his race horses.  Companies are still doing that, and worse, they’re just doing it in Bangladesh and other areas of the world all while they make record profits.  I don’t accept that we can’t fix that.

When they were getting ready to elect their first union officers one of the black women ran for a union office and some of the white women got testy about it.  It was rural America where there were still some lingering attitudes of racism, even though they didn’t target people for abuse, but this is an example of one of the things unions did for our society.  I will never forget my mother telling this story.

She said their business agent stood up in their meeting and preached them a sermon about discrimination.  He informed them that as far as the company was concerned they were all black and they’d better learn to stick together or there was no hope for any of them.  Attitudes changed because of what he said to them that day and our attitudes need to change.

Yes, unions not only gave the working class a voice in government and job protection but they fought against racism and sexism.  They educated working class people about their need for common respect and community.  Under unions women got the exact same pay as men doing the same job and so did black people.  It kept us united as a society with respect for each other’s contribution.

Factory workers might not have made as much money as the town doctor or lawyer but they were respected as working people who contributed to society and they were able to support their families.  They could take their children to the doctor when they were sick without worrying about how to pay for it.  Their children could go to school and hope for the next step up the economic ladder and nobody questioned that educating our children was a common goal that shouldn’t be shorted.  It facilitated a social mobility that created a middle class and a rising standard of living.

For several decades now we’ve watched the destruction of all of those mechanisms of social mobility and then we wonder why we have such an extreme gap between the working class/middle class and the wealthy, the ones who actually do the work verses the ones who trade on their work.

Rural America is the new “ghetto”.  The inner cities and the rural areas have become the new “reservations” where people will be trapped for generations in increasing poverty with decreasing levels of education and hope.  I call it the new “slave class.”  Wilson called it the “underclass.”  Is there a difference?

Even more importantly why do we allow it?  Is it because of the labeling?  Is it because we have allowed ourselves to believe all of these poor working class people are just lazy and no good and “undeserving” of better?  I hope we can all take one lesson away from this:  language precedes thought so to change our thought we have to change our language and the language we are willing to tolerate.

When we change our language other necessary changes will follow because this is America.  In America, when we decide to, we can change whatever we choose to change.  We don’t need guns because we have the ballot box and we need to defend it with passion.

This country came out of the Great Depression like a great phoenix rising from the smoldering ashes and we won a world war while doing so.  In the process we created the greatest super economy the world has ever seen with an increasingly higher standard of living for all.  We can fix this if we choose to.


A Hedonist model for Internet Access. (n.d.). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 5, 2013, from

A Surge In Growing Income Inequality. (n.d.). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 5, 2013, from

“Census Bureau.” Census Bureau Homepage. U. S. government, 5 May 2013. Web. 5 May 2013. “Census Bureau.” Census Bureau Homepage. U. S. government, 5 May 2013. Web. 5 May 2013. <¤tPosition=1&contentSet=GALE|CX3488000107&&docId=GALE|CX3488000107&docType=GALE>

Gilson, D. (n.d.). It’s the Inequality, Stupid | Mother Jones. Mother Jones | Smart, Fearless Journalism. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from

GRAPH: As Union Membership Has Declined, Income Inequality Has Skyrocketed In The United States | ThinkProgress. (n.d.). ThinkProgress. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from

Klein, E. (n.d.). This chart will change how you think about manufacturing. Washington Post: Breaking News, World, US, DC News & Analysis. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from

Jed Kolko: Rising Home Prices Can’t Keep Up With Rent Increases. (n.d.). Breaking News and Opinion on The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from

Monthly Labor Review. (n.d.). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 5, 2013, from

Monthly Labor Review. (n.d.). U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 5, 2013, from

Month. (n.d.). Databases, Tables & Calculators by Subject. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved May 5, 2013, from

Schaefer, R. T. (2011). Sociology: a brief introduction (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Taking on the Tool Belt Recession | Center for American Progress. Center for American Progress. Retrieved May 14, 2013, from

Wilson, W. J. (1987). The Truly disadvantaged: the inner public, the underclass, and public policy. Chicago [etc.: The University of Chicago Press. Hendricks, B. (n.d.).

Author: Cheryl Creech

What say you, the people?