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. To place myself in context to the issue, I’ll note that I worked as a researcher at a rural housing organization headquartered in Washington, DC, called the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) before coming to UC Berkeley to study planning. At HAC, I delved into learning about rural development, a field that I had rarely before been exposed to, and discovered some of the complexities of planning and development in small town communities. Nuancing my understanding of rural poverty and rural communities of color was strong takeaway from my work, particularly through examining historical social interactions between different populations and historical relationships to land.
A recent report from HAC 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 U.S., 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.
When it comes to addressing the racial wealth gap in rural America, and improving housing conditions across the board, understanding some of the ways in which rural areas are different is vital to instigating effective and equitable change. Some of the most important affordable housing work in rural areas may have to do with improving infrastructure, both at the financial level and with respect to site development and connectivity, whereas in urban and suburban areas this infrastructure may already be mostly present. Also, rural planners and policy-makers have to notice the unique manifestations of housing distress and housing preferences in their regions, and then be able to translate those needs into economic progress in a country that mainly has eyes for the big city.
Thus, we should use the example of rural to caution against “prescriptive” planning approaches that attempt to replicate a particular development solution across varied contexts. While attempting to transport planning examples even between separate urban environments can be dubious at times, clearly the process becomes even more so when attempting to translocate an urban planning paradigm to a rural area. We also owe it to the world to learn a little bit more about planning outside of urban areas. To get rid of the racial wealth gap, even if we aren’t experts, it is critical to stretch our minds beyond standard approaches and to advocate for a variety of policies to fit the multitude of planning contexts that exist in this country, as well as to understand how these different policies may interact with one another across varied geographies.
Stefani Cox is a master’s student in City and Regional Planning at UC Berkeley. She studies equitable and participatory planning with respect to economic and housing development, and has spent time working on issues of housing and community health in Washington, DC, and Chicago, IL. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.