‘We need a clearheaded new approach, based on the reality that the majority of struggling Americans could climb out—and stay out—of poverty, but only with significant help.’
At first glance, rural counties in northern battleground states—which are overwhelmingly white and Republican—share little in common with diverse, Democratic big cities in those states. Philadelphia, which is nearly two thirds non-white, gave its votes to Joe Biden by a 63-point margin. Meanwhile, Donald Trump won rural Pike County, Pennsylvania—which is 95 percent white—by 19 points.
Yet something surprising united Philadelphia and Pike County: very high rates of poverty and exceedingly low average incomes. Even pre-pandemic, Philadelphia had the highest poverty rate out of any big city—24 percent—and a median household income of $43,744. Pike County had a poverty rate of 21 percent and a median household income of $43,729. In comparison, the national poverty rate was 12 percent and the median household income was $60,293. In fact, there were more than two dozen counties in Pennsylvania with high poverty rates and with median household rates below $50,000 per year; they too are overwhelmingly white and rural, and gave massive pluralities to Trump.
This pattern is true in many other states. While Wayne County, Michigan (home of Detroit) and Cuyahoga County, Ohio (home of Cleveland), have large non-white populations, high poverty rates and a historic propensity to vote for the Democratic Party, both Michigan and Ohio have large numbers of high poverty, mostly white, rural counties that also overwhelmingly supported Trump.
Even here in New York State, the pattern is the same. Rural Chautauqua County, in Western New York, which Trump won by 20 points, is 94 percent white and has a poverty rate of 18 percent. In contrast, Biden won the Bronx—which is 91 percent non-white and has a poverty rate of 27 percent—by 66 points.
The reasons their economic situations are so similar but their voting behaviors are so different is clear: race and culture. Over the last few decades, after the Democratic Party embraced civil rights, reproductive choice, gun safety legislation and LGBTQ rights, rural white voters—even very poor ones—abandoned the Democratic Party in droves.
What, if anything, can help bridge this deep divide? The only real hope is for the new administration and Congress to team up to implement a bold, comprehensive national strategy to boost economic opportunity and mobility in the most impoverished rural and urban counties.
In 2019, 58.8 million U.S. residents lived below 200 percent of the poverty line. That means that, even pre-pandemic, nearly one in five Americans lived near or below the poverty line, pushing the great American middle class closer and closer to extinction.
Even though the largest number of Americans suffering from poverty are white, the racial disparities in U.S. family income are vast. In 2019, when the nation’s median family income was $68,703, it was $76,057 for non-Hispanic whites, $45,438 for Blacks and $56,113 for Hispanics. As vast as these differences in income are, the differences in assets are a veritable Grand Canyon: According to the Federal Reserve, the typical white family had eight times the wealth of the typical Black family and five times the wealth of the typical Hispanic family in 2016.
Since the pandemic hit, all of these problems have gotten far worse, and an estimated 54 million Americans—including 18 million children—are now food insecure or unable to afford enough food.
The good news is that we know—based on a poll that Hunger Free America just conducted among 800 low-income Americans nationwide —that urban, rural and suburban Americans (and people of all races) actually agree on key points of a policy agenda for boosting economic opportunity and mobility. All strongly support: a hike in the federal minimum wage, a national guarantee of living wage jobs, the increased use of modern technology to enable them to access government benefits and banking services more easily, and a boost in the SNAP (formerly called the Food Stamp) program.
Republicans, Independents, and Democrats all agree by large margins that the nation must do more to promote long-term upward mobility for themselves and others. They desperately want society to ensure that when they work hard, they not only are able to meet basic living expenses but are also able to buy their own homes, start their own small businesses, send their kids to college and set aside sufficient funds for a comfortable retirement. They understand the importance of moving from owing to owning.
Policy makers should thus advance a broad “Aspiration Empowerment/Middle Class Wealth Generation Agenda,” which would give all families the opportunity to advance their dreams through learning, earning, and saving their way out of poverty. We must move beyond the conservatives’ selective focus on those rare stories of poor people who climb their way out of poverty, supposedly on their own, against all odds, just as we must move beyond the limited focus of some on the left on those rare people with so many problems they can’t possibly move to self-sufficiency, no matter how much help they get. We need a clearheaded new approach, based on the reality that the majority of struggling Americans could climb out—and stay out—of poverty, but only with significant help.
The agenda would emphasize the importance of personal responsibility for all members of society (including the wealthiest), but also design public policies that reward—not punish—low-income people for positive behavior. For starters, all federal social programs and tax provisions would need to be reformed to better aid low- and moderate-income working Americans, not just those at the top.We should eliminate provisions in means-tested social programs that automatically kick people off the rolls when they get raises at their jobs, get better jobs, or save money, and replace them with benefits that taper off slowly as people achieve greater economic security. We should make it easier for low-income Americans to access benefits and banking services through their smartphones.
Reviving the spirit of the original G.I. Bill, we should enable anyone willing to perform a year of domestic national service to receive a large post-service voucher to pay for higher education, buying a first home, or starting a business.
I am hardly naïve enough to think that these economic and social policies will, in and of themselves, bridge racial and cultural divides built up over decades. But equally helping people in both urban and rural communities is a darn good start.
Joel Berg is CEO of Hunger Free America, a national nonprofit direct service and advocacy organization. He is also author of the book “America, We Need to Talk: A Self-Help Book for the Nation” (Seven Stories Press).