Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Rural America and the Illusion of the American Dream

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement,” wrote James Truslow Adams, an American writer that coined the phrase American Dream in his 1931 book, The Epic of America.

The idea of the American dream permeates much of American life, from the 19th-century cultural belief in Manifest Destiny to the controversial campaigns and Presidency of Donald J. Trump and his widely used slogan, “Make America Great Again.” The idea that any man or woman could make out on their own and succeed is one of the cultural pillars of American life and something that many Americans hold near and dear to their hearts. However, the idea of the American Dream may be limited, and, to many people, nearly impossible to attain.

Rural America is the hearthstone of the American zeitgeist, as “America, the Beautiful,” is oftentimes depicted as a wide-open expanse of prairie, valleys, riverbeds, and mountains. But people in those regions are few and far between and their needs, in much legislation, go unnoticed and underrepresented, particularly in areas like food availability and education.

“That’s why they call it the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.” — George Carlin

Rural Schooling

In 2018, nearly 9.3 million students attended a school in what the census classifies as rural areas. That number is larger than the 85 largest school districts in the U.S. put together. But even with such a large population of students the opportunities and tools available for many students use are mediocre at best in some places. In some cases, there are even existing one-room schoolhouses, which to many urbanites appear like a relic of the past.

“While some rural schools thrive, others and their communities continue to face devastating obstacles in the education and well-being of children,” Robert Mahaffey, the executive director of the Rural School and Community Trust, said in a statement. “Leaders in every state and our nation’s capital must work together to better address the issues facing rural students, schools, and communities with great haste.”

At least half of the public schools in 12 different states reside in rural communities but make up much smaller percentages of enrollment, with a median of around 500 students per rural school.

Many of these students live in poverty and lack basic infrastructure like high-speed internet access, and with much of schooling going online during the online COVID-19 pandemic that is more essential than ever.

In rural areas, the poverty rate was nearly four percentage points higher than their urban counterparts. A 2018 study by Save the Children, called Growing Up Rural in America, found that childhood poverty was more prominent in rural areas than urban ones in 85% of U.S. States, equating to nearly one in four children in rural areas living in poverty. “We are just above Russia, Kuwait, and Bosnia,” says Save the Children president and CEO Carolyn Miles. “So I wouldn’t say that the United States is doing terribly well as far as childhoods.”

2016 estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in Arizona nearly 36% of rural children lived in poverty.

“Children in rural America are more likely to die in infancy, miss out on meals, become pregnant as teenagers and not attend college,” said Mark Shriver, Save the Children’s Senior Vice President for U.S. Programs & Advocacy. “Rural child poverty rates have been persistently high for at least three generations in the U.S. That’s why Save the Children is working in the rural areas most crippled by poverty, helping children overcome the challenges they face because of where they live, so they can reach their full potential.”

Save the Children has been at the front of controversy though with sexual misconduct allegations leveled at its leadership.

Rural districts have 20% of all students, 30% of all schools, and 50% of all school districts, and yet only fields about 17% of state education budgets, and those budgets are only shrinking. A bookkeeping change in the Department of Education in February 2020 kicked hundreds of rural school districts off a federal aid program that helped fund some of the most underfunded and isolated schools in the country.

As the New York Times reports nearly 800 schools were booted off the Rural and Low-Income School Program because the department has abruptly changed how districts are to report how many of their students live in poverty. This is after 17 years of funding to some of these schools that are barely keeping their doors open.

Schooling, often seen as a great equalizer for people among the margins of society is becoming less and less available to those in some of the most underrepresented areas of America.

Food Deserts and a Lack of Resources

Beyond schooling, and a lack thereof in isolated areas of the country something that affects both urban and rural residents is that of food deserts.

A food desert is defined as an area without sufficient healthy food access, generally in an urban/suburban area farther than one mile from a supermarket, or a rural area farther than 15 miles from a supermarket.

Currently, about 23.5 million people in America are living in food deserts and a majority of them are low-income households, 20% of those households are under the US poverty line, and 80% of those households are below the median income in reference to their surrounding areas.

The ongoing effects of food deserts can be seen in the growing health epidemic in America with 36.5% of American adults being obese and another 32.5% overweight. A lack of healthy and affordable options leaves many Americans, and particularly rural Americans taking advantage of whatever food options they can find, and many times that just happens to be a McDonald’s or the limited options at one of the many dollar stores permeating rural America.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened the effects of food deserts with many people avoiding supermarkets and grocery stores altogether out of fear of contracting the virus, and in turn, those same people have shifted from weekly trips to the grocery store 20 miles away to raiding the pantry for rice and beans and daily trips to the dollar menu.

In Conclusion

This is just a snapshot of the many things affecting rural America. Some of the most fervent American patriots are also some of the most disenfranchised. The American heartland is sinking with shrinking job opportunities and education and is beginning to take the people in those areas with it.

A journalist just trying to get by. Everywhere to find me.

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