Challenges facing rural America deeply rooted in economic and social distress, researchers say

Ann Tickamyer, professor of sociology at Penn State, was one of the presenters at the 26th National Symposium on Family Issues. She says there's a lack of good policy for rural families and communities. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

Ann Tickamyer, professor of sociology at Penn State, was one of the presenters at the 26th National Symposium on Family Issues. She says there's a lack of good policy for rural families and communities. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

Nearly three and a half million Pennsylvanians live in rural parts of the state. In many ways, rural areas face challenges different than those in urban areas. Researchers gathered this week for the 26th National Symposium on Family Issues in State College, with a focus on rural families and communities.

Six presenters discussed various topics on the first day, but one theme was common: the economy and the social structures of the United States are changing, but researchers say some changes are specific to rural America.

The rural population is aging and shrinking, jobs are less stable and rural economies did not recover as well as cities after the 2008 recession.

Ann Tickamyer, a professor of sociology at Penn State, studies poverty. She said there’s a lack of good policy for rural families.

“One of the challenges is coming up with social policy, public policy to assist rural places,” Tickamyer said. “A lot of policy is focused on urban places.”

Investment in programs like early childhood education has proven to be effective in many cases, she said, even though “they pay off 20 years down the road.”

“We really are a sort-of short-term economy,” Tickamyer said. “People talk about that in terms of Wall Street and corporations, but it’s true in terms of public services as well.”

Distress, both economic and social, contributes to the opioid crisis, according to Syracuse University’s Shannon Monnat.

From her research, Monnat said the opioid crisis is not disproportionately rural, but mortality rates among different rural areas vary drastically, depending on factors such as work stability and social infrastructure like churches or sport leagues.

“To think holistically about this problem means considering the broader context of rural population health, rural economic factors, family factors and to really address the underlying causes that got us here in the first place,” Monnat said.

The way Monnat saw it, the opioid crisis is “a symptom and a symbol of much larger social family and economic problems,” requiring not only treatment for substance abuse, but changes to rural economies.

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