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Seeing Rural America Through a Clearer Lens

In an interview with Shelterforce editor Miriam Axel-Lute, Jim King of FAHE in Appalachia and Bill Bynum of HOPE in the Mississippi Delta, two longtime LISC partners, discuss the challenge of persistent poverty in rural communities. Investing in rural areas—and dispelling stereotypes about them—they argue, is critical for the health of the entire country.

The excerpt below is from:
Changing the Way We Think About Poor Rural Communities
By Miriam Axel-Lute, Shelterforce

Bill Bynum and Jim King are, respectively, CEO and president of HOPE in the Mississippi Delta, and Fahe in Appalachia Kentucky. In some ways, Bynum and King work in very different places—separated by climate, geography, and often race. But in many other ways, as the two are quick to point out, they and their communities are far more similar than different. For three decades, they’ve worked to bring economic justice and opportunity to their respective communities, they’ve been innovators in the field of nonprofit finance, and they’ve worked tirelessly to change the way we think of poor rural areas. They’ve brought resources and investment to their communities while, at the same time, dispelling toxic attitudes about those areas. Their observations and ideas are always worth paying close attention to.

Miriam Axel-Lute: What myths about rural areas do you hear most often, particularly within the community development world, and how are they wrong?

Bill Bynum: One of the myths is there’s no capacity. I wish I had money for every time I heard a foundation or a public agency question the capacity to deploy resources in rural areas. There’s nothing that people in rural areas can’t do that other people can do if they have the opportunity and the resources.

You have a shortage of resources—$41 per person [in philanthropic funding] in the Delta and Appalachia compared to $995 per person in New York. Plus the lack of CRA assessment areas in rural areas [means that] even though banks get a great deal of revenue from buying mortgages and investments from those areas, they don’t reinvest there. This, with the low tax base both at the local and at the state level, is going to inevitably produce less infrastructure and less capacity. But it’s not as if investments would not be effectively put to use and make a substantial difference.

Jim King: Part of the problem is there is capacity, but it doesn’t look like it does in an urban market. The majority of those who make decisions about philanthropy, capital, and federal dollars no longer understand rural places. They don’t know how to read the landscape well enough to see what capacity is unless it hits them in the face.

So what does it look like?

King: In an urban market, or non-rural market, you have people who are specialists in everything because you have a density of population that allows that to happen. I worked in Philadelphia before I moved to Appalachia, and in one afternoon [there] you could meet all these different small nonprofits, specialized on just property management or just housing counseling.

The further you get away from population density, what you have are organizations that appear to be more generalist. My membership is mostly known for housing, but they provide leadership in communities across all kinds of things. They sit on the school board. They are on city council. They run the food closet for the churches in town, as well as being property owners and managers and building houses and writing mortgages. They do all that stuff, but they are not that big, and so they’re spread thin. You have a lot of capacity, but it gets spread out really far.

That’s even true for [regional CDFIs working in rural areas] like my organization and Bill’s. We’ve all got our hands in way more things than our counterparts of similar size in completely different markets.

And that’s not something that is seen as desirable by people who are funneling resources? They’re looking for specialists?

Bynum: It’s so counter to what their urban paradigm is it’s not as attractive in most cases. It takes a lot more explaining. [At the Rural Places, Rural Spaces conference in Itta Bena, Mississippi, in February, Bank of America’s] Dan Letendre talked about the consolidation of banks and how they don’t ask if you can repay the loan, [just] do you fit into their business model, do you fit that box. And if you don’t fit that box, then you’re not likely to get a loan.

I think there’s a similar dynamic with philanthropy, banks, and federal programs, and it just makes it more difficult for us to access resources.

King: Part of the issue is that those boxes are being drawn up by people who have little to no experience having lived in a place of less than 500,000 people, which is one of the definitions that we heard recently for a study on “smaller communities.” In the whole state of Kentucky, I only have three communities that would exceed 500,000 people, and that’s out of a population of 8 million people.

How about myths to do with rural demographics and politics?

Bynum: One of the [reasons] we’re having this conversation is because Jim and I spent time exchanging ideas [and] lessons, learning from each other’s organizations, visiting each other. Our places had so much more in common than is typically perceived. Obviously, there are surface differences, but the level of persistent poverty, the level of infrastructure, the level of need, is very similar. Certainly, the Delta in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana have higher concentrations of African Americans [than Appalachia]. But we have a lot of poor white folks in our region as well, and the inverse is true for Jim and for other areas.

Touching on the political aspects a bit, I think that often you see people’s interests being pitted against other people who are in a very similar situation. The poor people in Appalachia and the poor people in the Delta have a lot more in common with each other than they do with people who are wealthier. But that’s certainly not the dominant narrative that often comes out. Organizations and groups that are doing work in persistent poverty areas agree that collectively our voices really represent more of what America looks like than most people who are not from these communities, and even people in these communities, will acknowledge. Poverty crosses a lot of hues of this country.

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