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Rural communities

February 19, 2013

This is a topic I’d been meaning to write about at some point, but a comment on the last post prompted me.

February 19, 2013 9:21 am

Thanks for the lengthy blog! I believe one must be careful about lumping too much onto rurality. Yes, living in rural environments can be bad for one’s health. It can also be good for one. Vermont is one of the most rural, and healthiest states. I believe there are a few more. This is, of course, always a precarious condition. Thinks can fall apart (go south?) tomorrow. Life for some remains very challenging. Perhaps we are simply less economically hierarchical. There is a common saying, that is also a joke: What is your third job? This reflects our high cost of living and relatively low wages across the board. We ty to build and maintain community, make mental and physical health care available to as many as possible, and support each other in time of need. We have large refugee populations in some communities, and this creates tensions. Yet somehow we still are largely a good place to live. I wonder what makes the difference.

That was actually one too-common theme in the article I was working from for the last post, which I didn’t even start into because I was trying to stay vaguely on track: the idea that living in a rural area has very few redeeming qualities, which often extends to the people themselves. And that’s before the stereotypes and just plain ugly propaganda associated with Southern Appalachia, in particular, enter into the picture. No doubt these places seem like inherently depressing places to live, for some people who have never even been there.

A few very relevant posts from s.e. smith’s excellent ongoing series:

There are plenty of others in that series which I could link to, but am limiting it. I’m not quoting from any of those, because it would be hard to pick quotes of reasonable length, and I don’t want to clunk up the post too much. They’re all well worth reading.

Not to mention the one on, which is only peripherally relevant here other than the way they can make some people’s brains immediately switch off as the stereotypes kick in. My own is stigmatized enough that a (college town) elementary school speech therapist took it upon herself to try to change it until my parents found out what was going on, and I keep running into unpleasantness over it on the other side of the Atlantic. (Where the Daily Fail runs Eastern Kentucky poverty porn.) Which, by now, only makes me more stubborn and prone to laying it on heavier, BTW. 👿  (Related to the Humor as a Shield thing, as well.) OK, I did have to include another link, because it’s just that good.

Rarely a day goes by that I don’t want to slap some ‘so-called “liberal” [or “Progressive”] twits’ online (or in person, but I haven’t been getting out much lately), because [h]ere we go again with the classism and/or regional bias. (“Q:  What do you call an Appalachian who has a PhD? A:  A Hillbilly”#) These folks are everywhere. They’re harder to avoid than the oh-so-superior manarchists I pretty quickly learned to avoid in college, and often harder to spot quickly enough that you can avoid listening to some of the hateful crap.

But, the point is, this is a pervasive cluster of perceptions about rural areas and the people who live in them. No wonder those stupid rednecks are depressed, with higher rates of certain health problems. These attitudes can be depressing enough to deal with. 😐

But, even though I am one of the “exceptional” reasonably articulate and educated hicks, “bettering myself” through living in Greater London for coming up on a decade now, what I would really prefer to do is move back on a mountain and plant a huge garden. With some chickens and ducks, and space for the dog to run around more. As aggravating as some of them can be at times, I really miss having family around, besides some old friends. I try to make the best of things, and focus on the good points about where we’re living now–because what else are you reasonably going to do?–but I just don’t like living in a crowded, noisy, more impersonal urban area with limited access to anything resembling woods or clean water. Even if I didn’t have the sensory issues that make me get more easily overwhelmed by all the noise and bustle, I don’t think urban living would be the best setup for me.

My subjective quality of life was better in a lot of ways, living in a smallish town in a rural area. Even living below the poverty line for years before I left. (In other ways, not so much, but that had nothing to do with the place.) Even knowing that my economic situation probably would not be great if I moved back home now, I still really want to sometimes.  And I still often get homesick to the point of crying, like I’m trying not to do right now. At least as much for the land itself, as for the people that I haven’t been able to stay in touch with so well.  Though the people, in general, are a big draw these days. I was a lot less socially isolated, back home, backward as I tend to be until I get to know people better. That’s easier to do in a smaller community.

The details may vary, but this is not an unusual situation among people who have needed to move away from the region, often to find work. Most want to go back at some point, maybe after they retire, whether or not  it ever ends up happening. That is a pretty good indication of what horrible lives they thought they were enduring back home, yeah. 😀

In a way, I guess I was also a not-so-intentional economic migrant, in a sense, since falling for someone who already had a good career and a mortgage here was the reason I moved; I was on SSI at the time. He’s actually looked into and applied for a few jobs at Virginia Tech and in the Roanoke Valley, but even there suitable IT positions for someone with experience are hard to come by. When it looked like we were going to be moving to the Bay Area for work, we were actually hoping to move out a bit in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (I doubted that either the commute or the roads would look as bad to me as to some of the people from urban areas who found both things intimidating; I wasn’t so sure about him, before seeing it up close.) It’s obviously not the same, but so much better for me than ending up in a sea of tract houses. The idea of another long-distance move was very stressful overall, but I was really looking forward to a more comfortable-for-me living situation. Mr. U grew up in apartments in the Stockholm burbs, but he liked the idea of having more space available.

Related to both cultural differences and disability, the economic situation has gotten shockingly bad around where I grew up, but I would still anticipate less trouble finding paid work than as an immigrant with no British-style educational qualifications here. (On top of being part of a group with an 85-88% unemployment rate in the UK. “[O]ne third are currently without a job or access to benefits”# *raises hand*) Partly because, IME, people are more accepting, and I apparently haven’t come across badly enough to have run into any unusual level of problems with interviews or actually getting jobs in past, with locals doing the hiring. Plus, there is the social network factor there, with getting to hear who has positions open and might be likely to hire me.

Also, there can be a positive side to relatively high rates of disability and that good old “fatalism”: it’s hard not to know some disabled people that you interact with on a daily basis, and shit happens. People get hurt (including at work), they get born with and/or develop an assortment of health problems, and so on, just like people sometimes end up out of work or otherwise in bad financial shape through no fault of their own. No need for all the Just World Hypothesis blaming. (I can’t find the old post I was thinking of, but I saw some interesting discussion several years back of someone’s similar experience with realism there, growing up in a working-class Black community.)

I do suspect this is a more common approach in a lot of other rural and semi-rural areas, if nothing else because not only is excluding people over things like that crappy behavior–if you start down that road, pretty soon you won’t have much of a community left. The same goes if there isn’t a decent bit of mutual help happening; that’s not going to make for a very strong community. To my mind, it also makes for a much more pleasant way of living.

I don’t think this was the snippet from Robert K. Thomas that I was thinking of, regarding relationships and community in rural areas, but this one is relevant anyway:

This is not to say that there is no outside pressure and intrusions into these villages [in Guatamala] but they are minor, to say the least, as contrasted to the life we lead in the large metropolitan areas of the United States. In other words these were real communities of people; communities that are real social units and that consist of people who live their lives together in intimate association with one another…

To a large degree, this was a kind of life that many of us lived in the United States before World War II. But even social scientists over 50 must be reminded periodically that this was the normal state of the world before World War II and it is still the normal state of the world in most areas of the world today. This is not to say that there are no real communities at all in the United States or any semblance of communities in the United States. Certainly, small towns in the Midwest and New England have at least a semblance of community in these days and many underdeveloped areas such as Appalachia have a large degree of community life…

It is partly the productive capacity of the Cherokee kin unit which makes for the efficiency, but more importantly it is the distribution system, the sharing together of resources which enables American Indian groups to live as successfully as they do at such an extremely low poverty level. If American Indian groups consisted simply of nuclear households then poverty would be dire indeed.

My own expectations here are  not surprisingly pretty strongly skewed in a horizontal collectivist direction; though, at least where I grew up, there didn’t seem to be much if any difference there between the more Native folks and the less Native local ones with the approach here. Maybe there’s more in other areas. But, as implied, this has wider application. BTW, I was also impressed at some similarities in the descriptions of how things worked, reading David Budbill’s Judevine, set in a fictional town in Vermont (for an Appalachian Studies course, actually).

Also, from another of s.e. smith’s, :

Instead, people in rural communities rely on each other. When someone is injured, neighbours will help with the animals and the farm. They will try to raise money to pay for hospital bills. They will help out with cooking and family care. They will help retrofit the home so the person will be able to move around after being discharged from the hospital; they will build the ramp, haul the bed to the ground floor, do what needs to be done. This is done without the expectation of reciprocity, but in the knowledge that these people, the people who need help, would turn around and do the same thing if they saw someone in need.

I do not want to discuss rural charity through rose coloured glasses. This is not a narrative that is universal. Some people in need in rural areas do not receive help, some people do not help, for a variety of reasons. This is a general trend, and it also varies considerably by region within the United States. But, generally, when I think about charity, I often think of my friends and neighbours first, and then community organisations like the food bank, and then institutional charity on a large level. And when I think about where I would go for help if I needed it, my first thought would not be a charitable organisation. When I think about where I would go to offer help, it is also directly within my community, not remotely through donations.

The same here, assuming one is living in that kind of community. Though, back home, I do not think of this kind of help as “charity”.  This change has been quite an adjustment for me, in terms of trying to get some needs met without the kind of support network I’m accustomed to–and figuring out how to help other people who need it. I can well imagine that a change in the other direction would be at least as disconcerting.

Without a decent bit of cooperation and just being a good neighbor, things are likely to be much rougher even when the economy is doing relatively well. Not to mention in terms of all kinds of coping during hard times. Overall, people do remarkably well in the face of adversity, if they’re not facing it alone.

Which is not to say that I don’t still get very angry sometimes at the kinds of larger systemic problems and resource grabbing which came up in the last piece, making things much harder than they need to be for so many people. And, eventually things can get to the point that, as I frothed about in an older post:

It’s hard to reach any other conclusion but that, in economic terms if not in sympathy and kindness, it has reached the point of trying to get blood out of a turnip. Even with people doing what they can to help one another, there really isn’t enough to go around.

I find it stressful from a distance, not being able to help much. (Because of distance, not being low on other resources.) It must be extra-frustrating to deal with, closer up.

But, yeah, I didn’t mean to make it sound like life is all bleakness all the time in rural areas.  Personally, I’d move back home in a heartbeat, if it were even vaguely economically feasible.

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