The decline of rural America is being complacently accepted as a reasonable price to pay for the renewed dynamism of coastal cities. It’s time that philanthropy takes note.
Over the past year, right-wing media sources revealed that a number of the nation’s largest foundations, including the W. K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation, were giving millions to nonprofit organizations associated with the anti-Trump “resistance,” including groups like the Center for Community Change, which gins up protests for progressive causes.
That wasn’t too surprising. Nor was it surprising when left-wing sources lamented that America’s big foundations weren’t deploying enough resources toward contesting the Trump administration and what it purportedly represents.
But what may be surprising, to those who do not follow the philanthropy world closely, is that the Kellogg and Ford foundations have historically been perhaps the nation’s largest funders of rural groups and programs. Now, those foundations were being criticized for—or else called upon to increase—their funding of organizations whose priorities manifestly are at odds with those who voted Donald Trump into office.
And for whatever else one might say about him, there can be no doubt that Donald Trump is the country dweller’s president.
His victory would have been impossible without the overwhelming support he received from rural areas. Trump won 80 percent of the nation’s counties, representing 85 percent of the nation’s land mass. In the 2,232 counties that contain no cities, he won 60 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 34 percent. In the four previous presidential elections, the Republican candidate’s advantage in these areas came nowhere near this 26-point edge. Trump’s vote percentage in rural counties was 29 points higher than it was in urban ones—a gap that again far exceeds those seen for Republican nominees from 2000 through 2012.
We must keep this deep rural-urban political divide in mind as we delve into the question of how philanthropic institutions and major donors relate to rural life today.
The role of philanthropy in sustaining rural life has received considerable attention in recent years. Funders like Kellogg, Ford, and others have evinced no interest in promoting rural people’s cultural and social ideals. Quite the contrary. The economic and health difficulties faced by America’s rural residents are considerable, and to some extent the philanthropic establishment is helping to alleviate these difficulties.
But as the 2016 election makes clear, what country and small-town residents long for is someone who will package technocratic assistance with a vision that recognizes the legitimacy of their values and aspirations. Ironically, the only person to offer them such a package, of late, is a bombastic playboy billionaire not exactly known for his charitable inclinations.
Diagnosing the challenges
Before we can consider the ways in which philanthropy can help rural communities, we need to introduce some pertinent facts, facts that go beyond, and may help us better understand, today’s electoral urban-rural divide.
Let’s start with health care, with special attention to the opioid crisis that has in recent years captured public attention. People living in rural counties are approximately twice as likely to overdose on prescription painkillers as those living in non-rural counties. Opioid prescription levels are also higher in rural than urban areas, in part because jobs there tend to be more physically demanding, in part because it is easier for unscrupulous doctors to get away with over-prescribing such medications, and in part because of other, practical reasons: for example, a dairy farmer may have no time to travel to a distant city for more invasive, but potentially fruitful, treatments for whatever is causing him pain, and so he and his doctor rely on opioids to keep him functional.
Likewise, effective treatment for opioid addiction is harder to come by in rural areas. While 19 percent of the American population lives in a rural district, only 10 percent of opioid treatment resources are available in these areas, and just 11 percent of rural patients seeking treatment for opioid addition receive the gold-standard Medication-Assisted Treatment. The rural treatment desert is one reason drug-related deaths (primarily driven by opioids) are 45 percent higher in rural than urban places.
The downstream effects of the rural opioid crisis are pervasive.
It is hard to attract new business to an area known for its addiction crisis. Population decreases as new residents become harder to attract, and as older ones become more inclined to get out. Families crumble. The strain put on government budgets and social services, from policing to caregiving to housing to schools to health care, can be crushing.
Opioid addiction isn’t the only health problem suffered disproportionately by rural livers. Rural residents have a higher rate of chronic disease than non-rural residents, and one-third of rural residents lose all their teeth by age 65. Not coincidentally, perhaps, 65 percent of areas with health-professional shortages are rural, and rural hospitals are closing at a faster rate than elsewhere. An estimated 2,000 rural communities have just one pharmacist, who also often doubles as the lone health-care provider.
The health-care challenges facing rural areas are inseparable from challenges related to the disproportionate presence of the elderly there.
About 10 million people 65 and older live in rural America. Opioid misuse among this population is reportedly growing, and there is concern that it will only get worse as the demographic with the worst opioid-addiction problem—45- to 55-year-olds—ages.
Many older people, especially grandparents, have been drawn into the opioid crisis by children whose addictions mean they cannot raise their own kids. Those who have escaped being touched by opioids often face other issues, like not being able to get around: 13 percent of rural seniors have no car, and 40 percent of all rural residents live in counties without public transportation.
The result is that the rural elderly can be especially socially isolated. Such isolation is connected with myriad negative health outcomes, including depression, stress, smoking, chronic disease, premature death, and cognitive decline.
The elderly are disproportionately represented in rural areas in part because of brain drain—the out-migration of the most talented youths, year after year, from rural to metro districts.
Sixty percent of Americans lived in rural areas in 1900; that number is now 19 percent. But far less than 19 percent of the most talented Americans live in rural places, thanks to the federally subsidized, ruthlessly efficient academic-economic meritocracy that virtually ensures no smart kid is left behind.
In 1940, the gap between rural and urban areas, with respect to the proportion of residents who possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher, was five percentage points. By 2000, it had become thirteen percentage points. It is certainly higher today.
A rarely acknowledged contributor to the rural brain-drain problem is student loan debt. Since salaries and wages in rural areas are almost always lower than in urban and suburban ones, many graduates cannot afford to return to, move to, or stay in rural districts. This means, in turn, that attracting new businesses to rural areas, or starting new businesses there, is more difficult than it is elsewhere. The talent base simply isn’t present. One is faced with a recruiting problem immediately.
It is all part of a vicious cycle. For one reason young people continually move away from rural areas is because the economy is worse in such places, and good jobs comparatively scarce. The recovery from the 2008–9 recession has been slower in rural counties than in metro ones. It would lag even more if not for the plentiful jobs provided by oil and gas extraction in 100 or so counties across the country, jobs that are generally temporary and do not necessarily enrich local communities except for a brief season.
Farms are of course concentrated in fewer hands than ever, despite the counter-trend of growth in small, organic farms which concentrate on selling to farmers’ markets and local restaurants. (Between 2008 and 2014, sales of produce from organic farms rose by 72 percent, but the larger story is told by the reduction in the number of American farms from 6.3 million in the 1930s to 2.2 million today.)
Thanks to the decline of locally owned banks, and the passage of legislation (e.g., Dodd-Frank) making it harder than ever for small business owners and entrepreneurs to get loans, it can be maddeningly difficult for Americans living in small towns and rural places to access investment and other forms of capital.
Between 2008 and 2017, large businesses saw a 35 percent increase in bank lending, while small businesses experienced a 15 percent decrease. New businesses accounted for 8 percent of all firms in 2016, down from 13 percent in 1980; and were it not for tech start-ups, the 2016 number would be significantly lower.
Predictably, then, rural Americans are economically poorer than their counterparts in basically every demographic: seniors, children, households, minorities, etc.
Although the poverty rate in rural counties, overall, is slightly lower than in other counties, one in five rural children nevertheless lives in poverty. One in three blacks in rural areas lives in poverty. Eighty-five percent of counties deemed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as “persistently poor” over the last three decades are rural. About 50 percent of rural households headed by a single mother are below the poverty line.
Single motherhood—that’s a relatively new rural phenomenon. Rural America was once a place characterized by intact families, low divorce rates, and high church attendance. All that has changed.
In 2011, for the first time, rural Americans became just as likely to be divorced as their suburban and urban counterparts. One-quarter of rural children do not live in a household headed by a married couple, a rate (23.7 percent) that is still lower than that of non-rural children (32.6 percent) but is rapidly rising.
Rural residents still score more highly on “religiosity” ratings than do urban dwellers, but as researchers like Brad Wilcox have shown, church attendance among whites with moderate levels of education appears to be in steep decline. And whites with moderate levels of education, as opposed to college-educated whites, are disproportionately present in rural America.
The responses to the diminishment and deterioration of rural life have been instructive. It is not unusual for the decline of rural America to be complacently accepted as a reasonable price to pay for the renewed dynamism of coastal cities, as in Richard Florida’s breathless celebration of the new urban “creative class.”
Urbanite liberals, of course, commonly speak about rural America with “irreverent humor and contempt,” as Lauren Kaori Gurley recently admitted in In These Times. In March 2017, Kevin Baker, writing in the New Republic, called for the abandonment of rural Americans via a “Bluexit.” “We’ll turn Blue America into a world-class incubator for progressive programs and policies, a laboratory for a guaranteed income and a high-speed public rail system and free public universities,” crows Baker. “We’ll focus on getting our own house in order, while yours falls into disrepair and ruin.”
Even conservatives have contributed to the narrative that today’s struggling country and small-town folk are essentially losers who deserve their fate. Kevin Williamson’s January 2014 article for National Review, titled “The White Ghetto,” made this argument in the most uncompromising terms possible. “The truth about [the] dysfunctional, downscale communities” found in rural America today, Williamson writes, “is that they deserve to die.”
Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap. Forget your sanctimony about struggling Rust Belt factory towns and your conspiracy theories about the wily Orientals stealing our jobs. Forget your goddamned gypsum, and, if he has a problem with that, forget Ed Burke, too. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin. What they need isn’t analgesics, literal or political. They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.
Williamson simply dared to say what many coastal conservatives manifestly believe. Add it all up, and rural America isn’t left with many real champions.
What is being done
At a time when rural America may need it more than ever, foundations have reduced their investment in rural programs and places. Various experts in the field, as well as former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, have examined the data and concluded that the share of philanthropic dollars “going to rural,” as the shorthand puts it, has declined since 2004, when a study by the left-leaning National Center for Responsive Philanthropy showed that 1 percent of foundation grant dollars went for rural development, and that .3 percent of foundations listed rural development as a priority.
This decline has come despite a 2011 memorandum of understanding between the Council on Foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in which both parties promised to inject more capital and resources into rural communities.
In that same year, the Nonprofit Quarterly reported that grant dollars to rural development had declined by 3.5 percent between 2004 and 2008, despite an increase in overall grant dollars of 43.4 percent.
Rick Cohen’s analysis of rural philanthropy has been the most comprehensive. Cohen reported in June 2015 on an Economic Research Service (ERS) study of foundation grantmaking from 2005 to 2010. That study revealed that among the 1,200 to 1,400 largest foundations in America, 5.5 percent of domestic grant dollars went to rural causes or organizations, or about $5.45 billion.
This is bad enough, in that it reveals that 19 percent of the U.S. population receives 5.5 percent of large foundations’ grant dollars. But the truth is worse. Of that $5.45 billion, only $310 million went for rural community economic development, Cohen estimated. Most of the remaining funds went to colleges and universities located in rural areas, the Oberlins and Grinnells and Sewanees of the world—hardly what anyone means by rural America.
In an earlier, much-cited article, Cohen listed among the reasons why rural philanthropy was decreasing that certain large foundations which used to emphasize rural giving, especially Kellogg and Ford, no longer were.
He also noted that there is now no strong rural philanthropy advocate among leading philanthropic institutions. Four of the top ten rural grantmakers in the ERS study were more or less conservative: the T. Boone Pickens Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, and the Walton Family Foundation. But these funders’ grantmaking to rural has tended to be incidental to their several visions, rather than a manifestation of a commitment to rural flourishing as a top mission priority.
Rural nonprofits already face serious structural disadvantages in trying to attract donor dollars.
Only 3 percent of the nation’s foundation assets are located in rural areas, for one thing. Furthermore, foundations are more devoted than ever to using their funds to achieve maximum measurable impact, a trend pushed by the hyper-utilitarian Effective Altruism movement, at its most extreme, but also unreflectively by MBA types of all political stripes. Since it is hard to report big impact numbers in areas with low population densities, the rise of this philosophical/management ideal imposes a high price on rural communities.
Rural nonprofits face yet other disadvantages. Grantmakers often only want to fund projects, rather than organizational infrastructure, and since rural nonprofits already barely secure enough funds to keep the lights on, this philanthropic prejudice is often enough to disqualify them.
Rural groups’ physical distance from funders means that they aren’t as able to form personal relationships with donors and foundations.
Finally, those rural areas which have comparatively few minority residents are often overlooked by big foundations because they don’t check the diversity box.
Of course, there is yet another reason why major philanthropists and mainstream foundations have tended to underfund rural communities: they may not much like, understand, or trust most of the people who live there.
In 2014, in the midst of his analysis of rural philanthropy, Rick Cohen asked, “Is a trend emerging that foundations that lean toward the liberal view are writing off rural? If so, that would be a disturbing phenomenon of political and geographic bifurcation.”
Whether or not it would be disturbing, it’s entirely understandable. Why would foundations want to provide funding to the folks that brought them Trump? Folks who are apparently incorrigible racist and xenophobic trans-phobes? Wouldn’t it be better if they were brought into the cities and suburbs, where they might be re-educated and civilized, or else left to molder and die in their crumbling shacks? As Cohen himself reported, “One top foundation executive has been widely reported to have said that the best thing that can be done for rural people is to give them bus tickets to cities.”
The NCRP has called for a “grassroots campaign of organizing rural voices to demand foundations live up to their public trust and move institutional philanthropy toward a more just, effective strategy in rural America.” But of course the NCRP would be horrified by the results of any genuine grassroots campaign in rural America, given its disgust with the result of the last presidential election.
The political-philosophical gap between funders and the rural people whom they would serve is revealed in the language spoken by foundation leaders, a language utterly alien to most rural dwellers. It is a sterile idiom of equity gaps and economic development and public-private partnerships and resource flows, completely lacking in the earthy, faith-tinged idiom used by actual country people.
And the gap is revealed in how careful mainstream funders are to concentrate their rural-funding efforts in healthcare and economic development initiatives—and to steer clear of efforts to preserve and promote rural culture.
This is not to say that foundations and major donors aren’t funding some interesting or promising projects in rural America. We should pause to take note of some of them here, so that we might better consider how those of us in greater sympathy with rural values and perspectives might complement and supplement such efforts.
In the area of health care, the rural opioid crisis is being addressed by programs like Project Lazarus, which builds coalitions between health-care workers, religious groups, and police to help addicts and provide training to local authorities.
Beyond opioids, a group called Remote Area Medical holds giant medical clinics in places like Wise County, Virginia, where access to healthcare is limited. As we reported here at Philanthropy Daily, hundreds of dentists and doctors converge every July at the Wise County Fairgrounds to serve about 2,000 patients, some of whom camp out for several days to be treated. The Medical Missionaries of Mary and dentists associated with the Mission of Mercy provide much of the manpower, and the Virginia Dental Association Foundation much of the funding.
The rural elderly are served, in rural Arizona, by a group called Mom’s Meals, which deploys specially trained FedEx drivers not only to deliver food but also to check personally on those to whom they deliver. Follow-up “reassurance calls” are then made by a local social service agency. Similarly, the Orange County Rural Alliance in North Carolina delivers hot meals to impoverished rural seniors, but also makes minor home repairs and takes time on each visit simply to talk. Various ride-sharing programs serving the elderly and infirm have been launched in recent years. Lyft partners with a couple of national caregiving nonprofits to help get patients to and from medical appointments. And in farflung Wickenburg, Arizona, a couple of local foundations have funded the Freedom Express, which gives free rides to those sixty and over five days a week.
On the economic front, one potentially promising model is offered by the West Central Initiative in Minnesota, which acts as a community foundation for nine rural counties. It has helped save jobs, and allegedly spur economic growth, by making $35 million in loans to local businesses, purportedly creating or sustaining 6,000 jobs.
A more innovative model has been developed by the Maine Harvest Credit Project (MHCP), which we featured at Philanthropy Daily last year. They provide loans to local farmers in order to grow their businesses. Started by Sam May and Scott Budde, the project is in the process of becoming a full-fledged credit union that will provide the capital loans that banks generally won’t because of their lack of sector expertise. Budde notes that an institution like the one he and his partner are creating would have already existed one hundred years ago, when there was a wealth of local financial institutions who understood their local economies—in this case, farming. But today, the lack of such institutions, caused in part by a complicated and stifling regulatory regime, means that small farmers trying to grow their production often go unfunded. The MHCP is a social enterprise rather than a nonprofit, and May and Budde emphasize the need for nonprofits to make relatively riskier loans to help those whom even the MHCP won’t be able to serve.
Despite not being a nonprofit, the MHCP has been funded by several local Maine foundations. That is noteworthy, because foundations are among the most intrinsically conservative institutions on earth. Facing no competition, needing to respond to no markets, often a generation or more removed from the donors who provided their capital, foundations have few incentives to be innovative or even energetic. One of the most fascinating things about them is their general laziness. But a few have realized that if they truly want to serve rural people, they will need to get out of their expensive ergonomic chairs and into the field. Bader Philanthropies, based in Wisconsin, offers one such example. Bader’s radical philosophy “is to go to the grantees and not expect them to come to us.” One of the programs Bader funds, as a result, is the Faith in Action program, which organizes volunteer caregivers to serve the homebound, the elderly, and the sick.
The Colorado Association of Funders offers another excellent model. CAF’s Rural Philanthropy Days is a three-day conference held twice per year in various rural Colorado locations. The point of the event, which includes twelve core funders, including conservative stalwarts like the Adolph Coors Foundaiton, Anschutz Family Fundation, the Daniels Fund, and the El Pomar Foundation, is to allow rural nonprofits and community leaders to get to know the state’s philanthropists, and vice versa. The result of Rural Philanthropy Days has been a sizeable increase in funds going to rural areas from these twelve funders each year.
Five ideas for rural funders
As some of these examples suggest, there is a growing recognition among some funders, at least, that the philanthropy establishment’s typical prejudices stand in the way of their being more generous and effective patrons of rural communities.
The industry’s literature and reports often warn would-be rural funders that numbers-driven measures of success will need to tweaked or dumped; that program models will have to be locally adapted and deeply rooted in local mores if they are to work; that building trust within the local community is essential; and even that locals often come up with the best ideas (e.g., in one instance, the simple idea of posting volunteers at voting centers to ask those in line to identify those community needs which aren’t being met).
Alas, many philanthropic institutions are not well-equipped to adopt these points of view. Aside from the ideological contempt with which many of their grant officers regard country people, they are the heirs to a philanthropic logic that by its very nature has tended to denigrate locally adapted, small-scale, humble, personalist approaches for those which promise, however implausibly, large-scale, once-and-for-all solutions.
Systemic change and thirty-thousand-foot views are the coins of the realm in modern philanthropy, and have been for more than a century. Rural peoples have historically borne the brunt of this high-modernist (to use James C. Scott’s terminology) way of thinking, and are unlikely to flourish under its reign.
If conservatives wish to take up the banner for rural philanthropy, and rural life more generally, a localist vision is essential. They must ask to what particular place they are accountable now, or will hold themselves accountable to in the future, and immerse themselves physically and spiritually in that community, living and loving and suffering with those they wish to serve.
And once committed to a place, their funding process must be as simple, direct, and un-bureaucratic as possible, even at the risk of “wasting” some resources.
What sorts of projects or ideas might a rurally focused, localist funder support? The list is doubtless a large one, and should vary by place, but a few possibilities suggest themselves:
1. The return of the talented. Rural communities cannot flourish if they continue to hemorrhage their most able young people. More thinking needs to be put into how to slow and ultimately reverse rural brain drain. There have been some efforts to bring the smartest young people back home—scholarships for local high school graduates to attend the local community college; debt-forgiveness programs for those who return— but nothing terribly innovative, and nothing on a large scale.
2. Capital and credit for small businesses and entrepreneurs. The model of the Maine Harvest Credit Project, which provides loans to local farmers in order to grow their businesses, and similar efforts, should be tested by funders, and information shared regularly between those operating in different areas. Peer lending circles like the one promoted by the Mission Asset Fund in San Francisco could be studied and implemented in communities nationwide. Some targeted legislative lobbying might also help open up new financing pathways for rural business people.
3. The growth of small farms and local food economies. As writers like Joel Salatin have pointed out, from child-labor regulations to food inspection, government bureaucrats have extraordinary power over what food is available in the local marketplace. Their system favors industrial, global, corporate food systems, precisely the sorts of systems which have contributed so much to the decline of rural America. There has been progress here, with the number of farmers’ markets growing by 180% from 2006 to 2016, reaching 8,200 nationwide, and local food sales rising to $6.1 billion. Sustainable/local food has become something of its own philanthropic program area in recent years, with funding in this area growing by 52 percent from 2011 to 2013. Something seems to be working, and rural-minded conservative donors could add significant funding to the cause while ensuring that the needs of rural people are balanced with those of rural landscapes and farm stock. The same could be said of open-space funding, another funding area where conservative institutions and donors are conspicuous by their absence.
4. Embedded rural “missionaries.” As a response to the working-class social and familial breakdown they witnessed by living in rural and small-town Ohio, David and Amber Lapp have argued in First Things that what is most fundamentally needed is a “deeply personal encounter” between would-be helpers and sufferers. They suggest that young couples might intentionally live in areas where stable loving marriages are in short supply; that older married couples might befriend and offer informal mentorship to younger ones; and, more importantly for our purposes, that charitable foundations ought to “partner with a church or nonprofit to subsidize ‘charity organizers,’ who would live in working-class neighborhoods and perhaps even take working-class jobs. They would help couples in their communities share stories, identify problems, consult with peers, and decide on initiatives.” This promising idea could be tested, perhaps in partnership with existing, missionary-minded faith-based organizations.
5. Anything that promises to combat family breakdown. Localist, rural-focused conservatives should not hesitate to contribute to health-care and economic initiatives that promise to lessen the pressures felt by fragile rural families, including some of those mentioned earlier. They can add not only much-need funds to such initiatives, but they can also broaden them to include components that might otherwise be ignored, such as faith-based counseling, while also providing a source of funding for programs that do not set themselves in opposition to rural places’ more traditional moral values.
In light of the deep and growing rural-urban political divide, and the consequent villainization of rural people, the inflow of philanthropic resources from establishment funders is likely to continue to slow.
Nor are the forces that have contributed to the decline of American rural life likely to spontaneously reverse. Rural America may, as Kevin Williamson says, be increasingly taking the shape of a dysfunctional slum. But its residents do not deserve that fate any more than our wealthy urban cities deserve theirs. A new coalition of donors who are sympathetic to today’s rural communities is therefore desperately needed.
 Ninety-five percent of the American land mass is regarded as rural. Needless to say, within this vast area there are different patterns of rural life, and in many rural places multiple kinds of “rural” coexist with one another. One classification scheme in use within the philanthropy establishment identifies four distinct rural categories:
- Rural areas within ninety minutes of significant urban areas.
- High amenity rural areas known for their scenic beauty, and thus home to significant wealth. Think of northern California, areas of Montana and Colorado, etc.
- Sparsely populated rural areas, characterized by low population density and substantial isolation; such areas are particularly common in the West; and
- High poverty rural areas, such as we find throughout the south, Appalachia, and within Native American reservations.
 See Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).
 My profound thanks to Philanthropy Daily editor Macarena Olsen for her research assistance in the preparation of this essay.
 See “Heartache, Pain, and Hope” for more about these and other programs.
 See James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1999), and Jeremy Beer, The Philanthropic Revolution: An Alternative History of American Charity (Philadelphia: Penn Press, 2015).