‘Response to Deep Disadvantage Has to Start With Listening,’ Says Scholar

A research project released last week has created a new way to measure the depth of economic and social poverty. The study contradicts stereotypes about where poverty exists in America.

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New research about the geography of disadvantaged communities challenges common misconceptions about poverty being predominantly an urban problem. 

“So much of research on poverty in the United States focuses on urban centers. And this suggests that maybe […] we’ve been missing the mark,” Luke Shaefer, a faculty director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan told the Daily Yonder in a phone interview.

He is one of the leading researchers on the project co-authored by the University of Michigan and Princeton. Newly released Index of Deep Disadvantage looks at poverty and disadvantage across all the nation’s counties and 500 of the largest US cities.

The index was based on three categories of data: income, health, and social mobility. While the most advantaged communities in the U.S. rank alongside the most developed parts of the world, those struggling the hardest measure up with countries like North Korea and Bangladesh. 

Luke Shaefer, Poverty Solutions director

From among the list of 100 most disadvantaged communities, 80 are rural. That figure came as a surprise to Luke Shaefer, a faculty director of Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan and one of the leading researchers on the project. 

According to Shaefer, the findings revealed misperceptions of rural poverty that need to be corrected in order to begin designing effective solutions.  

Deep, historical connections between severe disadvantage, race, and geography undermine the still prevailing belief about rural America as predominantly white, he said. 

Nineteen of the counties included on the 100 most disadvantaged list were located in rural Mississippi and had the majority African American populations. Twenty-one counties on the list contain tribal lands. 

“We were really struck when we put [our] map up against the map of the concentration of enslavement. Not just the overall clusterings are the same, but even the concentration is the same,” Shaefer said. 

Map of Deep Disadvantage distribution in the South next to a map depicting slavery distribution across southern states (source: University of Michigan)

The research involved direct and long-term engagement with the community alongside more standard work with statistical data. Researchers were sent to the communities, staying for several weeks at a time, collecting stories and learning first hand of people’s experiences.  It allowed for a fresh and eye-opening perspective. 

“We think you have to both look at the data and engage directly with communities because you only know to look for the things and the data that you know to look for. … When we aren’t in communities, we might miss the most important parts of the picture,” Shaefer said. 

He advocates approaching community members with humility. Without it, researchers won’t find the real stories behind the numbers. 

Other scholars involved in the research said being on the ground allowed them to explore the processes that perpetuate community-level disadvantage, going beyond the question “how much disadvantage is there in a given place” to why those conditions exist in the first place.

It also allowed gathering insights from residents about the effectiveness of existing policy solutions.

One of the examples comes from Marion County, South Carolina, where the researchers predicted that access to living-wage jobs would be a major issue but missed “two massive floods in three years” that brought many already struggling families down. 

“It turns out the ways that we do disaster relief, they don’t just reduce these disparities, they can actually exacerbate them,” Shaefer said.

A home in Marion County, South Carolina, sustained flood damage, as seen in the summer of 2019. (Photo by Jasmine Simington, University of Michigan)

Some affected households couldn’t participate in relief programs due to difficulties with proving the homeownership. Unsolved legal issues or a lack of a clean title to an inherited house could leave a homeowner with few or no options for government help. 

Jasmine Simington, one of the researchers embedded in Marion, said her time in the community revealed the connection between transportation and employment and healthcare. 

“Although there was a free clinic present in the county, people who qualified often could not find transportation to actually utilize the services,” Simington told Daily Yonder in an email.

Shaefer said the money dedicated to reducing poverty is disproportionately distributed between urban and rural areas. Shaefer believes that among the reasons is the government’s own misconception of poverty and where it primarily resides. 

“You have to look at the federal government and the extent to which we have always, I think, as a nation, thought of poverty is predominantly an urban problem. A lot of our systems are set up, like with the community development block grants as one example, to direct the resources to urban places,” Shaefer said.

Part of the hope behind the research is to correct the understanding of poverty in America in order to implement better solutions. 

Faith-based institutions and non-governmental organizations play a big role in addressing human needs in rural areas, Shaefer said. Government and philanthropy need to start pulling more weight, he said. 

The Michigan-Princeton team noticed a low level of trust in government and its ability to help.

“To me, that’s where the rubber hits the road and for those who think the government can intervene, can create programs that can really help lift communities up, we’ve got a long way to go to convince people that that’s true,” Shaefer said. 

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