A Strangeness in My Mind: Rural Poverty and Isolation
I generally spend my spring break visiting friends in Oklahoma, reading novels, playing board games, and taking a much-needed break from teaching and research. This past March, in an attempt to read something entertaining, I picked up a translation of Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in My Mind.
The story chronicles the life of Mevlut as he migrates between his rural village of Anatolia to the city of Istanbul for work. We read about his school-age games and schemes to make money, his tireless work with his father as a street vendor selling yogurt and boza (a slightly alcoholic Turkish drink), his conscription into the army, and, in a comically sad twist, his elopement to the seemingly wrong woman.
While A Strangeness in My Mind is a work of fiction, the spatial tensions it highlights provide an illuminating lens into the urban/rural divide that we experience in the U.S. and the many similarities between these two types of places. And, as early urban sociologists recognized, literature can often reveal new dynamics and connections about our social realities that go unnoticed. For instance, in the early 1900s, the gritty poetry of Carl Sandburg and the investigative journalism of Upton Sinclair in The Jungle highlighted working-class tensions, the need for legislative controls on industry, and the plight of immigrants within urban settings.
When we think about the differences between urban and rural spaces, the images that come to mind are stark. “The inner-city” has become code for impoverished, violence-stricken, communities of color. While, “rural” or “small-town” becomes synonymous with quaintness, farming, tradition, and, for many, white poverty.
Yet, for people who inhabit these spaces (I’ve been fortunate enough to live in both rural and urban places), we know that these stereotypical images aren’t accurate and hide the various ways that people attempt to live their lives. When we look at the conditions of poverty and access to opportunities, we see both overlap and difference between rural and urban populations.
In the same way that Mevlut migrates from Anatolia to Istanbul, many people in the U.S. are moving from suburbs and rural towns to urban centers. People usually make these moves for jobs, but also for access to the amenities that cities can offer. I’m not only referring to entertainment or restaurants or diversity of cultures and ideas, but also healthcare, better quality schools, public transportation, rental housing, and for a greater variety of potential romantic partners. While most cities are more expensive to live in than a rural place, the opportunities they offer to people – especially the poor – are higher. The city, as has been documented in popular culture and research, promises access to work, social and economic mobility, free cultural events, and social services.
Conversely, the challenges of rural spaces include a mismatch of available jobs and local skill sets, low-wages, not enough jobs, and diminished social support systems. There is a perceived lack of entertainment and diversity (although this may be changing with demographic shifts), two key components that younger generations look for when deciding on a place to live. Given the lack of public transit and amenities, there is also the risk of increased social isolation; an issue that plagues the poor in both urban and rural settings.
Several studies highlight the negative impacts of concentrated poverty on urban dwellers, yet we often overlook the very real challenges of rural poverty. As with cities, rural areas are diverse. We can, however, look at national trends to understand social issues.
In the aggregate, rural poverty has surpassed urban poverty since the 1960s. According to a 2015 report by the U.S. Census, 16.7% of rural residents are poor (compared with 13% of city-dwellers). Child poverty (an early indicator of later life chances) reached a peak 26.7% in 2012. Since the Great Recession, there has been a decrease in employment opportunities (-4.26%) for rural residents, and most of the jobs created are in the low-wage service sector (a departure from past employment in manufacturing).
In addition to low wages, rural residents are dying at a faster rate than their urban peers. According to sociologist Wesley James, some of this is due to suicide, alcohol abuse, and drug overdoses related to the recent opioid epidemic. Rural residents often lack ready access to hospitals, doctors, mental health practitioners, and general medicine. And, healthcare facilities in rural areas often have limited services.
Within urban neighborhoods, social services often bridge the gap between poor residents and their access to healthcare, education, housing, childcare, and food, for example. Given both the history of charitable giving in the United States and the proximity to other similar organizations, many social service agencies and foundations that focus on the poor are housed in cities. Rural areas don’t have access to the same level of public and philanthropic resources. This means that in addition to low wages, unemployment, high mortality rates, and issues of mental health, poor rural residents also don’t have access to the nonprofits that help to alleviate these conditions.
While A Strangeness in My Mind does not speak to the ongoing issues of poverty in the United States, it does highlight the universal paths that many people take in their search for economic security, community, and to live a life of dignity, with happiness and love. For Mevlut, he felt strangeness in his mind when in a sea of anonymous people, in a vast city, where no one could guess his thoughts. We might also think about disrupting perceptions and geographies of poverty as creating a needed strangeness in our collective minds.