Art for Q&A: Cynthia M. Duncan on Poverty and Politics in Rural America.
Worlds Apart, by Cynthia M. Duncan
,  January 9, 2015

Q&A: Cynthia M. Duncan on Poverty and Politics in Rural America

Worlds Apart, by Cynthia M. Duncan


Twenty years ago, the stock market was high, and national unemployment was low. But not everyone had an equal claim to that growing bubble. When University of New Hampshire sociologist Cynthia M. Duncan published the first edition of her book Worlds Apart in 1999, she exposed the hard realities for rural communities where both jobs and hope were packing up and leaving.

Like Studs Terkel, Duncan conducted hundreds of interviews—simply asking, listening, and recording people’s stories. She chose a mill town up north near her school, and two communities down south that had been among the poorest counties in the country for some time—one in Appalachia, and one in the Mississippi Delta. (She gives the towns, and her interview subjects, pseudonyms.)

This month, a revised second edition of her book will be published (Yale University Press, 328 pages, $25). For the new edition, Duncan returned to the three communities she had visited two decades before, to find out what has changed since then, and what hasn’t.


What do you think about how rural poverty is portrayed in the mainstream media, and about mainstream America’s awareness of the kinds of problems that these rural communities might have? And did it change, in the time between your two research trips?

I do think that people’s perception of poverty is all wrapped up in their ideology. So you’ve got people on the Right are saying that bad decisions cut people off from opportunity, and those on the Left saying it’s more about larger systemic problems, like racism or sexism, or how opportunities are distributed—and I think you see that same difference in media reports, with people portrayed as uneducated or making mistakes that trap them, or people portrayed as victims and maybe romanticized.

But I really don’t think there’s a difference between then and now, in how the media portrays rural poverty. I think in both periods you have some pretty amazing investigative journalism that gets at the messiness and the subtleties, and then you have others where people expect the stereotypes, and those are what they portray.

The boy whose photo is on my new cover is in a photojournalist’s pretty stark description of life in one of the poorest counties in America. And you know, it does both things—there’s plenty for both people on the Left or the Right to see in those photos, that confirm whatever they think it’s about.

By doing hundreds of interviews and portraying both the mistakes people made, and the ways in which sort of larger social structural and political factors were impeding their ability to either make better decisions, or get the resources they needed, my book addresses those ideological differences, in an effort to say, “that’s too simple.” We need to see the ways these things are intertwined.

Do you see connections between your work and James Agee’s work?

Those portraits Agee wrote about three sharecropping families are raw and heartbreaking. Hard living has drained and brutalized those people from early on. The same political economy underlies the stories I tell in Worlds Apart. You see the legacy of the plantation economy, or the coal economy, where the boss-men or the operators wanted cheap, compliant workers and therefore kept people ignorant, vulnerable, and limited participation in community affairs. 

One of the biggest determining factors in these places is probably the availability of good jobs. As you researched these towns, you saw the northern New England mill close down, and you watched coal on the decline in Appalachia. Where have people been going for work in some of these places?

Well, the northern New England place is like much of rural America, in that it now relies on two prisons, a federal prison and a state prison, for jobs. And a biomass plant, which, you know, there are various versions of natural-resource-based power efforts in rural America. And then recreation is the main thing that people look to—so there have been efforts to develop ATV trails, snowmobile trails, and a zipline, to bring people in from outside.

The coal community is in such bad shape—there have been a lot of people who have left. I talked to one young man who had been a miner, who said, “you know, it’s not easy to let go of heritages, but,” he said, “there’s just no denying that coal is over.” So, in that community, there was a lot of out-migration, and those who leave are often the younger families, and those who might have been more politically engaged to work for change, if they’d stayed—if there had been opportunity there.

What is the role of isolation in cycles of poverty in rural places, or, how is rural poverty different from urban poverty?

Social isolation—which goes along with concentrated, chronic poverty—perpetuates poverty because it cuts families off from the mainstream. The poor not only lack financial resources they need; they also are denied the cultural learning they need to succeed in school and in the workplace. Amartya Sen says the poor are those who are deprived of capabilities—the capability to be literate, to be healthy. “Deprived” is a good word to use; their poverty is neither accidental nor inevitable.

You know, in both the Delta and Appalachia people talked a lot about “mindsets”—what you aspire to, what you think you can be, how you regard yourself and your place in the world, to what extent you can challenge or question the way things work. I think in most regards rural and urban poverty are the same—hard lives, caught up in tough circumstances and neighborhoods, with limited hope. But I think with rural poverty you see the political dimension of poverty more clearly. The “deprivation” is tangible, and the fact that there are powerful political and economic people and institutions that do the depriving.

To the extent that we can talk about solutions, or ways to try to break the cycle of poverty, what have you seen that works?

In communities with a strong middle class, the core institutions work and benefit those in low-income families. The northern New England community lost its good-paying mill jobs that had long supported the large, blue-collar middle class. But the civic culture of cooperation and inclusive support was intact, and the community schools supported children from low-income families. But in chronically poor places like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, those institutions serving the have-nots are broken.  

We need to invest directly in poor children and their families. Behavioral and neuroscience research show conclusively that home visiting and quality early childhood education can make a huge difference in poor children’s cognitive and social development, and thus their life chances. Research also shows that when we support parents in fragile families—providing mental health and substance abuse help and family-supporting wages—they achieve stability that pays off for their children.  Without these investments, poor children in poor places will likely end up scratching and scrabbling like their parents, repeating the cycle of poverty.

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