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The Overlooked Americans
The Resilience of Our Rural Towns and What It Means for Our Country
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The Next Big Idea Club 2023 Must Read Book
We are frequently told rural America is in crisis. According to many journalists, academics, and politicians, our small towns have been hollowed out by lost jobs, and residents have turned to opioids and right-wing extremism to cope with their pain and resentment. In fact, many rural towns are thriving. Commentators have fixated on the steep decline of one region—Appalachia—and overlooked the millions of rural Americans who are succeeding in the heartland.
In The Overlooked Americans, public policy expert Elizabeth Currid-Halkett reveals that rural America has not been left behind the rest of the nation but instead is surprisingly successful. Drawing on deep research, including data and in-depth interviews, she traces how small towns are doing as well as, or better than, cities by many measures, including homeownership, income, and employment. She also shows how rural and urban Americans share core values, from opposing racism and upholding environmentalism to believing in democracy. Looking everywhere from Missouri to Minnesota to her hometown of Danville, Pennsylvania, Currid-Halkett ultimately reveals that the nation is less fractured by geography than many believe.
This is an urgent appeal for Americans to reconnect across a rural-urban divide that isn’t so wide after all.
WE ARE NOT SO DIFFERENT, YOU AND ME
Maybe stories are just data with a soul.
Clay Spencer is a poet and former socialist who lives in rock-ribbed, conservative Clay County, Kentucky, which has voted Republican since the Civil War. In the last presidential election, the county voted almost 90 percent for Trump. Clay is now a registered Democrat who considers himself “leftist,” but, as he puts it, “I don’t much care about the implied binary of that term.” Clay grew up in the small town of Oneida—population 427, in the heart of Appalachia—the son of a pastor who worked at a small Southern Baptist boarding school.
As a young adult, Clay moved away for some years to go to college and explore living in a new place. By the time we first speak in the spring of 2021, he is thirty-two years old and has moved back to Oneida, renting a room at the boarding school. When Clay was twenty-one years old, his father died, and being home allows him a chance to be near his mother, who still works at the school. Clay gets his water from the local spring and rarely turns on the heat, even when it gets cold. While some of these choices are environmental, as a poet working service jobs and more recently as a farmhand to make ends meet, Clay is also financially strapped. When I ask him how he feels about the economy, he is quiet at first. “I don’t think the economy tends to work for most people,” he remarks plainly. “I have a lot of distress and a lot of confusion around questions of economics. The etymology of the word ‘economy’ and the word ‘ecology’ come from the same Greek word ‘eco,’ which is life, and I think we are failing on both counts.” Despite his own clear financial hardship, there is not an ounce of anger or resentment in his remarks, just observation.
Clay goes on, “The way the country is set up is to keep the wealthy at the top and keep the poor poor—that rhetoric of the hardworking American that overlooks things that are tied to it. We don’t have a country that accumulated wealth without slave labor. We have this compounded wealth that is from the sweat of other people, an economy that produces for a few, and there are illusions of movement, promotions, but I don’t think it’s very likely [that someone moves from one class to another].” Clay would know. Five of the nation’s poorest twenty counties are in Kentucky. Clay County is fifteenth, with a median household income of $30,000. To put this figure in context, the US average median household income is almost $70,000. San Francisco’s closes in on $100,000.
Clay and I move from topic to topic, and at times I am so moved by his turn of phrase that I don’t know how to respond. When I ask Clay if he relates to fellow Americans, he simply says, “I certainly do, yes. I can’t imagine not relating to someone who was also a person.” Clay admits his views are “hippieish,” but to me they are more substantiated versions of what my progressive friends in Los Angeles might say. What is remarkable is Clay’s complete lack of resentment to where he is financially and socially. When we spoke, he discussed various books he’d read on economics, his own poetry, and this country’s most pressing political issues. I can’t help but ask him about his views on J. D. Vance’s best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, the story of a small Kentucky town, not too far from Oneida, that describes an angry and dysfunctional community unable to achieve social and economic mobility. Vance, a conservative public intellectual and a newly minted Republican senator from Ohio, narrates the town’s decline and his own coming-of-age story as the son of a drug-addicted mother.
While Vance grew up in a small town in Ohio, his family heralded from a part of Kentucky rife with addiction and poverty and steeped in what Vance describes as a contradictory brew of Appalachian culture: loyalty and belief in America, but also what he characterizes as a pathological resistance to hard work and an endless stream of blame toward others for their impoverished situation. Vance observes that his relatives brought this worldview with them to Butler County, Ohio, a Rust Belt region experiencing very similar problems to those in Appalachia. When his mother checked into rehab, Vance’s grandparents became his caregivers. Ultimately, through his own wits and hard work and his Mamaw’s unrelenting support, he landed at Ohio State University and then Yale Law School, where he felt the deep conflict between his roots and the infinite doors to his future that were suddenly opened.
I ask Clay whether he thought Vance’s book was a fair account of his region. Clay, like my graduate students, was troubled by the book, as were many of his friends. Vance blames individuals’ moral failings and the region’s culture as much as, if not more than, systemic forces for the decline of Appalachia. When it was first published in 2016, the book attained great acclaim for capturing a part of America seemingly misunderstood and forgotten. Vance has since been criticized by many for writing about a place that for most of his later adolescence was not his home but rather somewhere he visited. While Hillbilly Elegy offers some insights into the world of rural southern poverty, Vance arguably lacks true empathy for the people he describes, and he seems unappreciative of the larger social forces that make it difficult for most Appalachians to triumph over intergenerational dysfunction, addiction, and poverty as he did.
I find this missing empathy in Clay. “Appalachians should be telling their own story. Somebody who’s not from the region should not be grabbing the narrative and putting it into the popular narrative of Americans. It’s caused nothing but damage. In this region, there’s a lot more nuance than people give it credit. And the more people tell their stories, [the more] we tend to discover, don’t we? No need to eulogize us. We’re still here.”
Let me back up. For this book, I have spent hours and hours talking to people from Appalachia to San Francisco about their lives. Through this process, I had a list of questions that I went through with everyone to see how people of different ages, locations, income levels, education, and races might answer. While the interviewees and I chatted about all sorts of things—favorite holidays, favorite foods, where they grew up—within these questions was a deep story of their life, belief system, and identity that I was trying to uncover. I wanted to understand how Americans really feel about their fundamental values, each other, and the nation. In particular, I wanted to understand rural Americans. I wanted a peek into the quotidian parts of their lives along with hearing their answers to the big philosophical questions. My sense was that there is a real disconnect between how we Americans view each other and who we really are, and this is perhaps most true in how we see rural Americans.
Clay helps me get closer to the deep story I’m seeking. He is one of many interviewees who disrupt the mainstream ideas about what rural America is and who rural Americans are. Clay County, like much of rural America, is very Republican and predominately non-Hispanic white. Clay County is also far poorer and less educated than most of rural America. Socioeconomically, the town where Clay grew up aligns well with how the media represents rural America. Contrary to our stereotypes, however, Clay is anything but angry, disenfranchised, and reactionary. He speaks sensitively and empathetically about his hometown’s past and future, and he lives an idiosyncratic life. He attests to the diversity and complexity to be found among rural Americans, suggesting that our current scripts about this population are wrong. Thing is, he was but one of many people I interviewed from this part of the world, and none of them fit the caricature. There’s also strong quantitative evidence that suggests rural Americans are far more nuanced than we give them credit.
I have often thought that Americans, regardless of where we live or whom we vote for, get distracted by sensational media headlines and superficial lifestyle differences. Culture is important, but what I am most interested in is our humanity and how we relate to each other when we strip away our agitation and the cultural signifiers. If we can establish a deeper connection, we can get past our differences and find some form of reconciliation and compromise.
A few months after my conversation with Clay, my research took me over five hundred miles north. On an early December day in 2020, I had interviews with two men from Milwaukee, just hours apart. One of the men was a public defender in the city, and the other a radiologist. Both had graduate degrees and were married with children in college. Both were almost fifty years old at the time of the interviews. The person who made these introductions for me “warned” that one of them was a die-hard Republican who had twice voted for President Trump, and that the other was a far-left progressive. Given the politics of my contact, I was fairly certain the warning had to do with the Trump supporter, and I was quite curious as to what he meant. By this time, I had interviewed many Trump supporters and had found them—like almost all of the people I had interviewed—pleasant, respectful, and reasonable.
I asked these two interviewees, Nathan and Mike, the same questions as I did of almost all of my interviewees: their feelings on democracy, equality (and its existence in America), and the role of government, as well as their perspective on a variety of more personal issues such as education, food, and health. Do you feel anyone has a right to marry anyone? I asked. “Yes,” replied Nathan. “Yes,” replied Mike when I asked him several hours later. Mike continued, “I don’t think there’s a lot of people who say, ‘These people shouldn’t be allowed to do this thing.’”
What is your definition of equality? Does it exist in America? “What’s my definition of it?” asked Nathan. “Hmm. Equal opportunities come to my mind. People have similar opportunities presented to them despite their race, gender, orientation, but I certainly don’t think it exists right now, and it’s why I do the work I do, why we live where we live. Striving for equality is a big part of why I live the way I live.” I asked the same question of Mike. “The culture and the country should strive for it,” Mike responded. “In every way that there could be equality there won’t be [complete] equality.… Try to eliminate [inequality], but you will unearth more.”
What is the role of government? Is our government too involved or not involved enough? “I believe in what our Constitution says about the limits that need to be on our government,” explained Nathan. “Allowing us our personal freedoms, that generally the government should stay out of our business.… However, I think it’s important that the government can ensure civil rights, to ensure equality, to strive for that. I want the police out of my business, but I want the government to make it so that people can’t hire in a racist fashion or discriminate in a racist or sexist fashion.” Mike responded, “You know, the government’s role should be making efforts toward equality but staying out of day-to-day life other than to provide the basic necessities: roads, police officers, and schools and social nets. Beyond the basics they should be concentrating on equality and equal opportunity.” Can you guess from these interview responses who is the twice-Trump-supporting Republican and who is the progressive Democrat? I wouldn’t blame you if you can’t, even though we’re conditioned to believe the two men’s responses should be antithetical.
It’s not just people like Clay living in rural America that we get wrong. There is a story in this country that Americans do not see eye to eye on the big stuff. You can divide us by race or religion or geography or income; you can divide us into Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, the coasts and the middle of America. Supposedly, the country is beset by cultural, social, and political fault lines, and it’s all but impossible to find common ground. This very morning as I sit down to drink a cup of coffee and look at the news, I am barraged by frightening headlines—“We’re Edging Closer to Civil War,” “America’s Anti-Democratic Movement,” “The Upcoming Elections That Could Shake Both Parties”—and this outcry is only the homepage of the New York Times, my favorite newspaper. On Fox News, Newt Gingrich is reporting that Democrats are “paying off” their allies before the midterm “catastrophe.” CNN reports that American democracy may hinge on the 2022 election. The same article goes on to quote Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State, who observes of the 2020 election that “we were one vice president away from a coup.”2 Coup. Catastrophe. Civil war. Democracy, the very essence of our country, is in an acute emergency state, as told by our journalists, public intellectuals, and leaders. Is this Haiti? Sudan? Syria? No, it’s the United States of America, and to use the same terms for our country that are used to describe war-torn nations with tyrannical governments is an offense to the latter.
Americans are still free to protest nonviolently, and for all the political turmoil of recent years, this is still their preferred tactic. Whether demonstrating against the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on abortion or in support of Black Lives Matter, whether lobbying for gun rights or nonviolently protesting the Biden administration, people are free to express their dissatisfaction in the streets, to pen essays and opinion pieces, and to organize political groups. Americans mobilize. They get excited about winning the midterms. There may be schadenfreude when an opposing politician is mired in scandal or an incumbent loses to an upstart from the other party, but it’s not civil war.
And yet sensational stories about the end of democracy or an imminent civil war appear daily. These stories often rely on misleading tactics. The polling approach often used by mainstream outlets has its own bias in the methodology. These surveys often use either “binary choice” (yes/no) or “forced choice” (scales of agreeing or disagreeing) questions, which may create ostensibly unambiguous findings but not uncover the variation in how people actually feel.3 Responding that you perceive “no threat at all” to the future of democracy—a political system known to be messy, difficult, and volatile—would be a naive answer in the best of times. The newspapers and institutions who do the polling may also have a vested interest in producing clear majority and minority responses to hot-button issues.4
The media—motivated by clickbait and profits—popularizes the story of a besieged country under threat. Peddling the sensational idea that America is on the brink of social collapse attracts readers and, in turn, revenue, a far more lucrative approach than acknowledging that America is both rife with difference and tied together by long-standing norms and values. The media is not maliciously motivated or bent on deepening social division, but is rather highly responsive to a changing landscape. Traditional media outlets must now compete with social media, blogs, and YouTube, where disinformation and misinformation often spread.5 In order to attract eyeballs in this crowded marketplace, larger media institutions adopt sensationalism. Indeed, both traditional and social media contribute to a sense of crisis and division in America and shape information through their own bias.
These tactics do our democracy a deep disservice. Americans are increasingly fatigued by the media putting us on high alert.6 Day after day, week after week, the average Monday morning brings the distressing headlines I mentioned. We should not be surprised that Americans are tired and skeptical, or that they have lost faith that the government and the media will tell them a fair and balanced story.7 As the psychologist Steven Pinker points out, if Americans do read the news—which is almost always reporting a crisis—they feel negative and a sense of doom.8 Many Americans have become desensitized to alarming headlines, even as the media they consume pushes them to be more pessimistic about our government.9 And yet, these feelings do not translate toward their fellow countrymen.
In a 2015 New York Review of Books conversation between then president Barack Obama and the Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Marilynne Robinson, the two great thinkers lament the impact of our politics and media on the nature of democracy. But they equally ask us to recognize that our system of government is worthy of respect and praise. As Obama remarks, “When I was growing up, if the President had spoken to the country, there were three stations, and you know, every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story and that would last for a couple of weeks.” Obama observes that the twenty-four-hour news cycle and emphasis on sensationalism creates a sense of despair because this is the type of news that sells. “I believe it creates a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices… they’re not heard. It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.”
Robinson notes that when the United States was founded, democracy was not taken for granted. It was thought to be a great achievement. “You know, it wasn’t simply the most efficient modern system,” she observes. “It was something that people collectively made, and that they understood they held it together by valuing it… the human respect… it sort of compounds itself in a respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture, which is a hard thing.” Robinson then goes on to explain that so many other countries have failed to achieve a democratic political system. “I think one of the things we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted,” she concludes. “It is a main thing that we remake continuously.”
Robinson’s words are wise, and they reveal how important it is to be conscious citizens of our country. I believe many people share her view of the United States. Not a single person I spoke to was truly scared that democracy might be lost, and nor did they want it to be. No one spoke poorly of others who had different viewpoints than theirs. They valued our political system and their fellow citizens.
This revelation starts with a single question. I asked my interviewees—rural and urban alike: What does democracy mean to you? Time and time again, they shared a similar vision. “I guess just empowering people to have a decision in choices, and things that happen in their life and an ability to effect change,” said one college-educated woman from Pennsylvania. “I would say living with your freedoms… being able to vote, and [choosing] who you want to represent you,” said a high-school-educated man from the same state. “Living in a nation where we can make our own choices. The government is of the people and for the people,” responded a pastor from Missouri. “The right to speak your values and beliefs and vote for who you want as your leader,” explained a PhD-educated woman from San Francisco. “Multiple opinions coming to a majority consensus,” summed up a young woman from Houston. “I think of it as everybody has a choice, everybody has a vote, everyone mattering,” said a single mom in Appalachia. “Where everyone gets a fair say with decision-making, to some extent.… People should help make decisions for the country and to have the freedom to have free speech and practice any religion, without being persecuted,” explained a neurologist from Memphis. “I am trying to get all of the media influences out of my head. What democracy is? Could it be as simple as one person, one vote?” observed a tech executive from Berkeley. What struck me was, despite how different these people are from one another, their answers are similar. People believe in the same basic functions of government and importance of equality and democracy, irrespective of where they live, their education, or occupation.
The same held true when I asked my interviewees about a “divided America.” I asked several questions to get at people’s perceptions of national cohesion: Do you believe Americans have a shared sense of values?, Do you feel left behind?, Do you feel you relate to fellow Americans, particularly those who live in totally different places?, and finally, The media has said our country has “two Americas.” Is that a statement you believe? While I listened to folks answer these questions in various ways, one thing was clear: whatever division they perceived in America, they did not feel divided from other Americans. Yes, some people believed that America was divided—almost all the urban, educated interviewees and about half of the rural ones—but they didn’t blame their fellow Americans. Many instead pointed to the media for fostering and amplifying a sense of division. Others blamed increasing class inequality, Washington dysfunction, and self-interested politicians. Rarely was an unkind word spoken of other citizens. Even as my new friends worried that the country was fracturing, they felt they could relate to one another as human beings. As Clay Spencer in Kentucky put it, “Being American is enough of a specificity that we had something in common that we could relate to.” The media and politicians insist the country is acutely divided, but most of my interviewees still felt they could empathize with other Americans and find common ground.
For the most part, the people I interviewed also didn’t feel particularly left behind. As a man from Missouri who asked to remain anonymous remarked, “The truth is, Elizabeth, we don’t feel left behind. We want to be left alone.” He meant by the government and the media, which he felt encroached on his way of life. People weren’t angry with other ordinary Americans. If they did feel alienated, it was because they resented the giant political machine of Washington, which felt beyond their control and yet dictated their lives. Even those I spoke with who were largely comfortable with their situation saw Washington and politics as far removed from their daily experience.
In fact, both the educated coastal elites and those in the smallest of rural towns shared a belief that they could relate to one another. Barring the rare indecisive response, almost everyone shared this sentiment. One Harvard-educated schoolteacher from Berkeley put it like this: “We spent two weeks in Tennessee, and we were at this trampoline park every day, and while we were there talking to a lot of parents [who were very different from parents back in Berkeley]. It’s so interesting because [despite this], I feel like there were a lot of points of connection. I felt there were a bunch of moms I met [and] we could have been friends had I actually lived in that area.” This woman’s observations were not unique. The sense I got from all of my interviewees was that, irrespective of differences, when they talked with others, they could easily find connections.
These interviews aligned with what large-scale studies of American society, such as the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey (GSS), reveal.10 Established in 1972, the GSS collects data on American attitudes, opinions, and beliefs on topics from race to mobility to morality. Year after year, the GSS allows researchers to study what Americans of different ages, races, income levels, and residences think of a variety of topics. Using the most recent data available (2018) and incorporating earlier years as necessary (some questions are not asked every year), I was able to get a wide and deep sense of Americans’ views on many important topics.11 Taking a look at the GSS responses, I found that rural America differs dramatically from our perception of it, and that rural and urban Americans share a lot of common ground with regard to our most pressing social and political issues.
Consider the responses to questions regarding democracy and the US government. Americans are not disillusioned with democracy. However, they are disillusioned with our government, and this sentiment is not specific to rural or urban folks. Approximately 47 percent of urban and 44 percent of rural respondents to the GSS had “hardly any” confidence in the executive branch. Forty-two percent of those surveyed, across geographies, had “only some” confidence in the executive branch. Similar responses can be found in questions directed toward the legislative branch: 48 percent of urban and 44 percent of rural respondents had “hardly any” confidence in it, while 43 percent and 47 percent of urban and rural respondents, respectively, had “only some” confidence. Put another way, of the urban- and rural-dwelling Americans surveyed in the GSS, only roughly 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively, had “a great deal of confidence” in the executive and legislative branches. Incidentally, while half of rural and urban Americans had “only some” confidence in the Supreme Court, the second-most popular response for both groups was “a great deal” of confidence in the Supreme Court, with 30 percent of urban and 23 percent of rural respondents supportive of the judicial branch.
- "A lively dismantling of preconceptions about the rural U.S…. A hopeful and provocative analysis bound to raise discussion."—Kirkus (Starred)
- “[An] astute survey… Idealistic yet well-grounded, this is a refreshing antidote to doom and gloom prognostications of where America is headed.”—Publishers Weekly
- “The Overlooked Americans is a much-needed reassessment of small-town life in rural America. Based on detailed research, the book reveals life in rural America to be complex and varied—and in many cases better off than conventional wisdom would have us believe. This timely book belies the narrative of a nation sharply polarized across an urban-rural divide. Instead, Elizabeth Currid-Halkett shows that Americans aren’t nearly as divided by geography as the punditry and media would have us believe. Urban, suburban, and rural Americans have more in common than we think. A modern-day version of Michael Harrington’s classic, The Other America, this moving book is essential reading for all who care about the future of our country and its people.”—Richard Florida, author of The New Urban Crisis
- “What is America really? Currid-Halkett pierces through the noise and challenges mainstream narratives with this timely, rigorous, and heartfelt analysis. The Overlooked Americans tears down entrenched definitions and stereotypes and builds a new image of rural America that is not hopelessly divided from urban America. Nuanced, cogent, and empathetic, this book deserves attention from politicians, pundits, and the public.”—Jane Harman, USC Presidential Scholar, Former Member of Congress (CA, 36)
- “Currid-Halkett has long been a formidable observer of cultural trends, but with The Overlooked Americans, she deftly combines qualitative and quantitative research to create a riveting, clear-eyed, and often-surprising portrait of small-town America.”—Sloane Crosley, author of Cult Classic
- “Currid-Halkett’s The Overlooked Americans is a pleasure to read. It is the most balanced and broadest-ranging look at her topic. Through data and heartfelt stories, Currid-Halkett reveals the grit and resilience of rural Americans.”—Tyler Cowen, George Mason University
- “This book by a leading scholar of regional development puts to rest, supported by empirical evidence, the damaging myths about people in rural America. Citizens in rural areas are, for the most part, educated and civic-minded. Their quality of life appears to be higher than the average metropolitan dweller's, and they are not supporters of ideological and political extremism. Instead, they are hard-working and entrepreneurial, contributing to a healthy economy. This is an essential book that will change the public debate on the state of the nation."—Manuel Castells, University of California, Berkeley
- “The Overlooked Americans is a powerful antidote to the drop-in ‘diner interview.’ Currid-Halkett takes a sledgehammer of data to cherished myths about rural America and replaces them with empathetic portraits of complexity and contradiction. Her bottom line: America is not as divided as many Americans think nor in the ways we’ve been led to believe.”—Philip Gorski, Yale University
- On Sale
- Jun 6, 2023
- Page Count
- 432 pages
- Basic Books