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Bridging the rural divide

Bridging the rural divide
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The deep divide between rural and urban communities is a polarization that has been exemplified by coronavirus, climate change and economic despair. 

It is estimated that approximately 60 million people live in rural America. Most of the landmass of the United States is in rural counties, covering 90 percent of the nation. Many rural areas are far from urban centers, while some are just outside of our cities. In my experience living and working in rural communities over the years, policy proposals introduced by lawmakers often exclude rural communities either intentionally or through the language. To bridge the divide, we need to develop a political lexicon that is inclusive of rural Americans.

A contingent of rural voices — beginning with residents — should be consulted whenever policy is made in order to avoid unintentional exclusion. A rural roundtable composed of plain folks — and not just politicians — should be assembled to give a voice to how to prevent the death of rural communities. Many elected officials represent rural communities but live in urban areas

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Federal infrastructure investment should also include rural communities. Not only are roads and bridges in need of repair or replacement, but the lack of funding is also startling. There is no broadband in many areas and children are unable to attend virtual school because of the lack of internet services.

Cell phone service is often unreliable in places like Lowndes County, Ala., which borders the state’s capital, Montgomery. Despite the likely perspective among those who live in urban areas that rural communities are remote, some are not. Rural populations have been neglected because they do not fit into a certain formula that is skewed toward cities. 

A glaring example of the rural divide is the wastewater treatment deficit throughout rural America. This should be a key component of the infrastructure investment as we build back better. More than 20 percent of the nation use onsite wastewater technologies, reaching 40 percent or more in areas with large rural populations. Up to half of the septic systems in the United States do not work properly or fail at some point and, by some estimates, 65 percent of lands across the nation cannot support septic systems.

It is astounding that no accurate figure exists that provides the true picture of this issue. Yet there are states that mandate residents buy failing onsite wastewater systems that leave families in public health crises when the sewage comes back into their homes or is on the ground. Now that COVID-19 is known to exist in wastewater, finding solutions is more imperative.

Rural communities should no longer be left behind. Congress must begin addressing this problem now while also looking at technological solutions for a new future reclaiming and reusing household wastewater. As we seek to reduce greenhouse gases emissions (GHG), green infrastructure should be deployed, the pandemic should be addressed. Access to clean water and working wastewater infrastructure should also be a top priority of the Biden administration. It is where climate change and environmental justice intersect.

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One recent example of the way lawmakers can leave rural citizens behind: census data in 2020 was collected online, by mail or by phone. In rural households with no internet access, unreliable or no phone service and often several families sometimes in different houses at one address, this is not an efficient way to account for everyone. 

If the country wants to account for all Americans, we must begin by discarding traditional formulas to count rural residents, which excludes family homes or compounds in sparsely populated areas that have one mailbox and more than one household on the property. Hiring census workers that live in the community who can go from house to house would provide a more realistic count of rural residents, which would then lead to a more equitable distribution of federal dollars. Unincorporated areas should not be punished and left out of funding equations. 

Here’s what can be done to include rural populations:

New ways to get money to the residents should be implemented, especially if the states are not cooperating;

An alternative mechanism to get aid to citizens should be offered where the political structures fail to do so;

A study should be commissioned to seek input from impacted persons on reviving rural towns and communities;

Ill-advised policy of closing rural hospitals should be reversed;

Support for the role of rural communities in fighting climate change should be granted;

Financial support to revive family farms should be provided;

Enable marginalized communities throughout America — including territories like Puerto Rico — to have access to the clean energy economy that prioritizes communities for retraining, investment, housing and infrastructure that support industries other than landfills, prisons and dirty industry. 

Moreover, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) should identify the states that have sent money back instead of spending it in communities where it is needed for housing, family farms or resilient and sustainable infrastructure. All Americans should have access to climate-friendly housing and wastewater treatment whether in rural or urban communities. The USDA should work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) engaging environmental justice principles to provide clean water and sanitation across the United States. Throughout the federal government, environmental justice should inform all policies and provide a healthy and safe environment for all Americans to live and thrive.

This is a new day and the time is here to disrupt inadequate paradigms that do not promote the common good, exclude the poor and exploit crises to support the few when many are suffering. The relocation of many city dwellers to rural areas during this pandemic is indicative of the future as we confront the challenges of climate change. 

Rural America is a part of our present and our future as we build back better or build in places long neglected. This is an opportunity for the Biden-Harris administration to unite us all and bridge the divide with inclusive policies that do not pit rural against urban areas.


Catherine Coleman Flowers is an internationally recognized environmental activist, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, and author of the recent book "WASTE: One Woman’s Fight Against America’s Dirty Secret." She has spent her career advocating for equal access to water and sanitation for all communities — particularly those who are marginalized.