The train derailment in the Ohio town of East Palestine illustrates the significant neglect to which rural areas in the United States are subject. The response to this life-threatening disaster was inadequate and lacked urgency for the 4,700 residents who were put in danger. Government officials and agencies claim that East Palestine is safe, but residents of the community fear for their health, with many reporting symptoms associated with chemical inhalation, like shortness of breath, dizziness and headaches. East Palestine citizens are feeling disregarded by officials and are disappointed at their lack of urgency. As one East Palestine resident told NPR, “That’s not real reassuring that they’re just going to say, ‘Oh, everything’s good,’ because we aren’t going to know the true ramifications of what the impact on the environment is for a while.” Federal politicians and agencies are treating the matter from a distance and offering little support to those facing this disaster. It seems the only real sense of urgency toward this issue comes from the officials who want to get the derailment out of the news as quickly as possible.
Although the nature of these events differs, comparing the response to Hurricane Sandy in New York City to the response in East Palestine illustrates a clear imbalance in concern for rural areas compared to urban ones. The decisions made in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy established a precedent for dealing with similar circumstances quickly and effectively. This kind of response has been nonexistent in Ohio — the concerns of residents are being ignored, and nobody is taking responsibility. But neglect of rural areas goes beyond one in a million situations like this. Huge disparities have existed between public health care in rural and urban areas for the past 20 years, resulting in higher mortality rates in rural areas compared to urban ones. Unemployment and poverty rates are also higher in rural areas, and job growth has plateaued in rural areas while skyrocketing in metropolitan areas.
The neglect of rural areas stems in large part from a stigma that pervades the United States. Rural areas are considered obsolete, and their function in our nation’s economy is often overlooked. However, rural areas provide essential services in agriculture, mining and forestry that could not exist in urban areas. Urban areas get credit for diversity and industry that isn’t given to rural areas, but rural areas are more economically and demographically diverse than many people tend to realize. Rural populations are often considered to be exclusively white, which proportionately is close to true, but since 97 percent of the United States’ land mass is rural, thinking of rural areas as homogeneous discounts the existence and experiences of marginalized groups throughout the country who live in these rural areas.
Rural people are often stereotyped as backward and traditional, and are therefore not given as much respect as they deserve in the United States. Because of this, policymakers often neglect the importance of rural society and the nuance that exists in rural counties. Current policies aimed at increasing job growth and reducing poverty in rural areas fail to address the primary sources of inequality between rural and urban areas, such as access to quality education, health care and affordable housing. Subsidies to rural areas frequently go to the wrong places, favoring urbanization and corporate growth over education and fair labor standards for existing industries. The policies enacted also neglect the diverse and individual needs of rural areas, treating every county the same despite differences in economic and demographic makeup.
Rural areas don’t need to be urbanized — they just need access to resources that can help their existing economies flourish and last. Investing in equitable education, sustainable agricultural and industrial development and high-quality public services will allow rural areas to succeed. With this, an increase in social protection and equal access to natural resources will ensure growing, diverse populations in rural areas can thrive. The stigma surrounding rural areas is harmful and has caused ineffective policies to be implemented. This has fostered a growth in the divide between urban and rural areas in the United States, and rural areas have been neglected as a result. Rural America has always been the backbone of the United States, and leaving it to perish will have negative ramifications for us all.
Antonia Kladias is a freshman majoring in biochemistry.