Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

H. Luke Shaefer is a professor and Associate Dean at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he studies the prevention and alleviation of American poverty. In August, alongside co-authors Kathryn J. Edin and Timothy J. Nelson, Shaefer released a new book called “The Injustice of Place: Uncovering the Legacy of Poverty in America.” The book takes on the surprising (to some) fact that most of the places with the lowest incomes, poorest health outcomes, and worst life chances are rural communities – especially those with large non-white populations. Through an in-depth and years-long research effort, these authors found that studying places rather than people can provide a whole new set of insights about the cyclical nature of American poverty. 

Enjoy our conversation about rural violence, revitalizing Main Street, and what Appalachia, South Texas, and the Cotton Belt have in common, below.

H. Luke Shaefer is the Hermann and Amalie Kohn Professor of Social Justice and Social Policy at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. (Photo provided)

Olivia Weeks, Deesmealz: What unites the three “internal colonies” you write about in the book?

H. Luke Shaefer: As we started to get to know the histories of the regions we write about in the book –Appalachia, the Cotton Belt and South Texas, the regions that experience some of the deepest disadvantage seen in the nation – we were struck that their stories had common themes. They were all places dominated by a single extractive industry for decades, often from the end of the 19th century through the beginning of the 20th. The industries were controlled by a small group of elites but all required large, low-wage labor forces. What's more, those who controlled the industries controlled pretty much every aspect of social life – economic, political, and social. Systems were developed to reinforce the social order and keep the low-wage labor force in place.

I think this story is known by many in the Cotton Belt of the Deep South because of slavery and Jim Crow, but what struck us was the similarities to the stories repeated in South Texas (table top vegetables), and Central Appalachia (coal, before that timber, before that salt). Each version unique, and slavery and Jim Crow by far the most destructive, but similar themes nonetheless. So much of the life in these places is touched by the legacy of these industries. While recognizing their differences, we think it is also important to understand how their stories are linked together.

DY: At first, the stories of these disadvantaged regions don’t seem so unique. Industry develops and populates a formerly sparse place, the people who come to live and work there develop outside institutions and businesses, and the economy is diversified. What stunted that process in these colonies? Why is a sole-commodity economy so problematic?

HLS: It was that these were extractive industries that required a large, low-wage labor force. Social relations were patterned after that in order to reinforce the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Beyond that, a sole commodity economy leaves communities vulnerable to downturns. In each case, these industries went into major decline beginning sometime in the mid-20th century, and this had a crippling effect because there weren't other industries to cushion the blow.

DY: You write that, “between 1999 and 2013, gun deaths were most likely to occur in counties that were poor and rural, after accounting for population size.” So, why is the popular image of a violent community so urban? Do you have a theory?

HLS: I think it is because violence is more concentrated in cities. We can see it. It might feel more on top of people. Perhaps there is more media coverage that spans communities, like regional television or radio. In rural areas there isn't as much concentration, although there certainly is in certain neighborhoods. But more broadly, I think most Americans who haven't spent time in rural communities don't know anything about rural poverty and disadvantage. There is such diversity across rural America across so many dimensions, many places where poverty and inequality is the lowest, and health is the best, but our poorest places too. People who don't live in these communities often don't know about the violence of poor rural places because they have never been there and, to put it bluntly, don't really even know these places exist beyond a cursory knowledge at best.

DY: The book really teases out the class dynamics of community revitalization efforts: In places where lower income residents are afraid of getting swept-up in social scenes where drugs and violence are frequently present, “hunkering down” becomes a source of moral virtue. On the other hand, there’s often a community of upper-class people organizing events on Main Street and trying to stoke city-wide investment and involvement. What kinds of downstream effects do those different ideals have within a town? How do you build cross-class collectives in an environment like that?

HLS: I think there are a few layers to this question. The first is that some of these community events really do successfully bring people together across class. I love the Spinach Festival in Crystal City, Texas, as one example. They can be points of pride. But other times upper class folks might organize things that sound good to them, and perhaps miss the mark with most residents. I might encourage those who are trying to foster citywide investment to start by listening and asking those with the least what they would like to see, and what community events should look like.

The book was released August 8, 2023 from HarperCollins. (Photo via Harper Collins Publishers)

And then in some places, there is the case where those who control things are actively trying to exclude those at the bottom. They might not want them around. Perhaps those residents don't project the image they are hoping to conjure.

DY: Lastly, I’d like to test out a personal theory on you. I’ve always felt like arguments about whether or not Trump voters were motivated by economic disadvantage focus too narrowly on individual “pocketbook concerns,” at the expense of community-level questions. If you’re watching your town deteriorate before your eyes, you might feel some reasonable economic angst, even if you’re personally doing fine. Did your attempt to study places over people  generate any findings that might substantiate or invalidate my theory? How could we better integrate place-based concerns into our understandings of American politics?

HLS: Oh I think there is a lot of truth here. National politics didn't come up that much as we talked to people, but when it did, there was a fair amount of support for former President Trump. Yet our read was that it wasn't based on his policies so much as the fact that he was sticking it to the established political machine, the existing parties, so to speak. So many of the people we got to know in the communities we were in felt completely abandoned by the federal government. Furthermore I think they have very little faith that government could help them even if they tried. I think there is evidence that the opening up of free trade through NAFTA had a major impact on our politics, beyond what I understood before this project. I think when manufacturing jobs were allowed to move overseas, many in these communities felt abandoned and it led voters in these communities to shift deeply rightward. I think that is one not-well-understood driver of the politics we see today, however anyone feels about them.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Deesmealz. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

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