Identity and Wealth in Rural America

[imgbelt img=povmap.jpg]Rural communities are diverse. When attempting to address the racial wealth gap in rural areas, planners need to remember that “housing hardship” may not look the same, but it’s just as real.

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the Berkeley Planning Journal, a student publication of the University of California, Berkeley Department of City and Regional Planning.

A message from the Rural Assembly

Most of us have heard of the growing racial wealth gap and the statistics that show how white America continues to diverge from households of color when it comes to building assets, particularly in the form of quality homeownership. While we may tend to think about this disparity in the context of urban and suburban environments, it is crucial to also relate the issue to the households that live on the other 90% of the U.S. landmass, known as rural and small town America.

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A recent report from the Housing Assistance Council shows that rural America has diverse racial and ethnic characteristics when taken as a whole. While these regions have a larger percentage of non-Hispanic whites (78%) in comparison to non-rural communities (64%) overall, rural people of color live in a variety of settings, such as Native American lands, the Lower Mississippi Delta, the southern Black Belt and the colonias region along the U.S.-Mexico border. Populations such as migrant and seasonal farmworkers are also often found in rural areas. In examining the poverty rates among non-Hispanic whites and people of color, the gap between the two is wider in rural locations than throughout the U.S. overall. Additionally, the issue of persistent poverty—counties with continually high rates of poverty over the past 20 years—has much to do with these rural communities of color. Large parts of rural regions of color, in addition to several communities in Central Appalachia, make up the vast majority of counties in the U.S. with a history of persistent poverty.

Clearly, the wealth gap applies to rural landscapes, and considering rural demographics helps remind us of the multifaceted nature of race, ethnicity and asset accumulation. Black identity in a given urban inner-city, for example, can be very different from black identity in a given county in the rural Mississippi Delta. Each has a unique connection to the surrounding environment and develops in part due to a unique political and economic history of marginalization. In considering planning and development avenues, these unique connections and history may translate into a need for entirely different planning processes and sets of stakeholders across the two locations. If we return to the crux of the racial wealth gap—housing and homeownership patterns—we see that while the rural story often parallels dynamics in urban and suburban areas, rural housing displays some important differences from other housing patterns that are worth considering.

Similar to disparities throughout the rest of the United States, rural households of color are less likely to be homeowners than non-Hispanic whites, and many of these households were hard-hit by the recent foreclosure crisis. Other patterns of housing hardship, however, may be different in rural regions. For example, in rural and small-town areas high-cost lending and low access to mortgage credit are more prevalent than in other places, and households of color are more likely to face high-cost loans.

Housing distress itself can also manifest differently in rural areas. For instance, in a past interview I conducted with a rural Minnesota housing services provider, I discovered that families at-risk of homelessness in the area were more likely to “double-up,” or move in with another family, than families throughout the rest of the state. So, in the service provider’s area, due to doubling-up, there was a lower proportion of federally recognized homelessness than might have occurred if sharing housing was a less common response to dealing with economic hardship. What is hidden behind the low rate of homelessness is the fact that many families still experience housing distress and need better access to housing resources in an area where homeless services are few and far between. Later, I learned that this pattern is not unique to rural Minnesota, and is in fact the case across many other parts of rural America.

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A message from the Rural Assembly

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