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Understanding Disadvantage in Rural, Urban, and Suburban Places

By Kalena Thomhave
Poverty Solutions at U-M

In this session, panelists discussed how we can better understand what poverty looks like across rural, urban, and suburban places. Moderator Lynette Clemetson, director of Wallace House, home of the Knight-Wallace Fellowships for Journalists and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists at the University of Michigan, reminds us that journalists aim to “reflect society and communities and people’s experiences, with all the nuance that the human experience dictates.” Yet, she says, fully understanding an issue and its greater context can be difficult when journalists are juggling multiple projects, on deadlines, and under specific word counts. How then, can we use the resources around us to challenge our assumptions about poverty and instead report not only what’s happening in low-income communities, but the history that led us there?

Luke Shaefer, faculty director of Poverty Solutions, knows that it’s easy to fall back on simple narratives about poverty, because he was challenged when he met with low-income families across the country for his book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America, to learn more about their lives and experiences. Shaefer’s acknowledgment of “how often [he’s] wrong about things” should be good advice for journalists reporting on communities of which they are not a part.

Rural poverty, for instance, is often overlooked in favor of focusing on poverty in urban areas. Yet Shaefer noted that in an index of 100 “communities of deepest disadvantage,” only 9 were among the nation’s 500 largest cities. In fact, 19 communities were rural counties in Mississippi, and 21 were tribal areas.

Shaefer found striking similarities when comparing his deep disadvantage data to a historical map of the concentration of enslavement from the 1860 census. The map and more information are available in the paper “Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage: An Introduction.”

David Jesse, higher education reporter at the Detroit Free Press, spent last summer reporting on rural communities in Northwestern Michigan. As a higher education reporter, Jesse realized that he spent most of his time reporting in the lower third of the state, where the universities are located. What were people’s experiences like in the rural, northern part of the state, where Michiganders from the southern part of the state tend to only visit for vacation?

Jesse looks for stories where “you wouldn’t think about poverty.” A decade ago, he did a story on hidden poverty in wealthy Ann Arbor. In the northwestern part of the state, Jesse found what he termed “education deserts.” He discovered that a lack of community colleges and four-year universities meant that many locals didn’t have opportunities to study in town. They would have to have a car—and deal with winter roads. And so, people are more likely to rely on low-income jobs. (Read his series on rural poverty and higher education in Michigan).

In urban areas, we can look at housing as one window into why people are experiencing greater poverty. In this midst of a global pandemic, Roshanak Mehdipanah, assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, reminds us that “much of today’s health inequities, including those associated with Covid-19, can be traced back to policy that was implemented almost 100 years ago.” Redlining was a major force in restricting Black Americans’ access to homeownership, contributing to the deep racial wealth gap where the median white family holds ten times more wealth than the median Black family.

“Until we address these existing structures and systems that continue to perpetuate these iniquities, we will not be able to eradicate poverty in this country,” says Mehdipanah. Journalists should work to add deep historical context to their stories, not only naming disparities, but giving some of the reasons why. (Learn more about her work on the intersection of health and housing in Detroit).

Finally, Glennon Sweeney, senior research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, spoke about suburban poverty, which many people completely write off as impossible. Suburbs, after all, are thought of as for the wealthy. “White flight” after World War II did see white families flock to the suburbs, creating communities barring people of color, but the homes they moved into were small, mass-produced, and not always well made. Today, many of these homes are in decline, with their neighborhoods experiencing increased crime, poorer educational results, falling housing stock, decreased tax bases, and yes, increased poverty. Note that these places, like rural areas, are also less likely to be home to social services like food banks.

Traditional media sometimes relies on the narrative, often pushed by racial stereotype, that poverty only exists in cities and “urban” areas (sometimes a coded word). But poverty cuts across geography and place.