When you think of rural America, what comes to mind? Rolling fields of farmland or peacefully grazing livestock? Maybe an old, abandoned gas station that looks like something from a 1970s horror film. Whatever your initial thought was, I’m sure it had nothing to do with the growing class division in America or how rural communities reflect this extreme economic inequality.

Representing this national social issue in Yuba County is a two-stoplight town located off of Highway 65. According to the United States Census Bureau, Wheatland, California, has a population of 4,652 full-time residents with an incredible medium income of $77,303. This small and wealthy community has a poverty rate of only 5.6%. In the context of rural advancement, Wheatland is considered a highly successful community. However, the 259 people currently living below the poverty line in Wheatland may disagree. Issues with affordable housing and access to essential health care services are just a couple of factors that keep these struggling individuals and families on the brink of destitution.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition recently stated that over the last few decades, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Section 515 Rural Housing Loan Program has been cut by more than 95%. From now until 2027, the USDA estimates that 1,800 rental homes in rural communities will be lost each year due to maturing mortgages. If nothing changes, this loss will increase to 22,000 annually following 2032. As Wheatland expands with new planned housing developments, and home values continue to climb, this additional yearly decrease in affordable rental options will have a significant impact on Wheatland’s impoverished few. However, Governor Newsom did recently sign a national-leading rent relief program that clears rent debt for low-income Californians that have suffered economic hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A good start, but only a short-term solution for a long-term problem.

Along with the lack of affordable housing, rural communities also face significant barriers to obtaining quality health care. Wheatland residents seeking a variety of health services are forced to travel several miles outside of town limits. The Center for Disease Control lists health care access and economic stability as two of the main social determinants of health. Those living in poverty are less likely to have access to medical services, nutritional foods, and opportunities for physical activity. This results in a higher risk for illness and disease among low-income individuals and families. As one would imagine, these disparities are only intensified for those living in rural communities as resources are especially limited. The USDA recently announced that $156 million will be invested to improve rural community health care facilities and essential emergency services in 16 states, including California. While this is a win for some, it still fails to fix the bigger systematic issue.

Specifically targeting the extreme economic inequality in America would help alleviate housing and health disparities for rural community residents and the 34 million people currently living below the poverty line. By reforming employment opportunities for the low-skilled and part-time job sector, we could help lift families out of poverty. Increasing earned sick days, providing paid family and medical leave, and establishing improved work-hour standards are just a few viable options. So, the next time you think about rural America, forget about the rolling hills and livestock and instead consider the rising economic divide that currently plagues our nation.

Arianna Neuenkirk and Christine Cope are graduate students at the University of Southern California who wrote an op-ed as part of a Macro Policy/Advocacy assignment.

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