Rural Despair


Rural whites with a high school education or less experienced the highest premature death rates in the last 15 years, according to a series of studies published in the October edition of the American Journal of Public Health. The studies note a significant increase in suicide, drug overdoses and liver disease among virtually all age groups, in general a clear trend of self-destructive behavior.

The study authors attribute it to several factors: loss of well-paying jobs, the demise of the family farm and the culture it nurtured, and a loss of hope that things will change for the better. For the first time, rural white men are not doing better than their fathers, according to all sorts of data. It explains the Trump and King voter, or so they would suggest.

The rise in premature deaths among white males comes as premature deaths among African Americans declines. Data on Latinos are not as good, partly because of self-identification, but the trend line is toward fewer premature deaths.

The study also notes that mental health services in rural areas are in decline, if available at all. That certainly is the case in Iowa.

Finally, the study finds that rural whites feel stigmatized by “elites,” who look down at them as rednecks. This can lead to internalizing that results in self-destructive behavior.

We know it sounds harsh, but, there are a few defining characteristics of the demographic. First, you are rural. Rural does not define despair. We know some quite rich, happy rural people. Second, you are white. White people have pretty much had a leg up on black people, relatively speaking; it certainly is not a hindrance to upward economic mobility in Iowa. Third, and most important, you do not have more than a high school diploma. This is the defining characteristic.

The rule about America is if you want to get ahead, get a good education. That’s what the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas put their lives on the line for.

Iowa historically has been prosperous because it had among the strongest, most heavily invested education systems in the world. We don’t anymore. We don’t fund it like we used to. State universities are forced to beg from Monsanto and the Koch Brothers to run their genetics and economics departments. K-12 schools are told to get by on a 1% annual raise. Community colleges are always taking a beating. And, not all of us think we need post-secondary education. In fact, we do, unless you want to go to an early grave.

The first thing we should do to address rural despair is to fund our education system. Rural Iowa has been shooing off its sons and daughters since the days of farming with horses. That is nothing new. What is new is that there is a class of people left behind with little education and, thus, stuck in place in the absence of a manufacturing job and little opportunity for retraining if you can’t afford it. There are jobs in Iowa, even in rural Iowa. We have friends who complain that they can’t find good help. There is probably a state conference about it this week. We are doing our level best to destroy rural places, but Iowa has always been a state of education and innovation. Hybrid corn came from a rural place. So did a cloned cow. If you get an education you can innovate, too.

We have come to think of rural places as environs of despair and isolation. They can be rich and vigorous, as Storm Lake and Decorah and Sioux Center are. What makes them is education. It shows a person the way to step around despair, and how to adapt to adversity. So if we continue to starve education we can expect a lot more studies like this, a lot more resentment and a real loss of rural community. Iowans have always understood this but we forget.

Art Cullen, managing editor of The Progressive Populist, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing as editor of his day job at The Storm Lake (Iowa) Times (

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2017

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