Helping America’s “Forgotten Places” Amid a Pandemic

A new project has provided hard data to back up a truth already known to many Southern funders: our region contains a disproportionate share of the nation’s most disadvantaged areas.

Understanding Communities of Deep Disadvantage, released in January 2020 by researchers at the University of Michigan and Princeton University, combines health and economic data in a unique index that ranks every county – as well as small and large cities across the United States – from the most disadvantaged to the least disadvantaged. The report found that 74 of the 100 most disadvantaged places in the United States are located in the Southeast.

These places are predominantly rural. Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama are the most frequently represented states, but all 11 states in the SECF footprint have communities among the most disadvantaged in the country.

The report’s release came just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which first took root in large metropolitan areas but has since spread to rural communities. Many of the tates where COVID-19 cases were rising sharpest by mid-June, including Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas, are also disproportionately rural.

The disadvantaged communities data incorporates the landmark research into social mobility led by Dr. Raj Chetty – social mobility is a measurement of how likely a child is to move up the income ladder based upon where they grow up. Unlike similar rankings, the data is comparable across states and across rural and urban settings, highlighting the relationship between social mobility, income and two critical indicators: life expectancy and low birthweight.

The research was led by Dr. Luke Schaefer of the University of Michigan and Dr. Kathryn Edin at Princeton University, who first looked at the country’s poorest families in their 2015 report, “$2.00 A Day,” which focused on families with children with little or no cash income. The new project shifts the research focus from communities to individuals.

“We didn’t go into this thinking that rural communities would dominate the rankings of the deeply disadvantaged as they do,” Schaefer said. “Our poverty policies suffer when social science research misses so many of the places with the greatest need.”

Burke County in Georgia is one of the 100 most disadvantaged. A county of 23,000 along the eastern border of the state, 49 percent of the residents are African-American. Its population has steadily fallen since 1920 – first due to the Great Migration of African-Americans to job centers in the Northeast and Midwest, then due to the decline of the textile industry in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Despite these changes, Burke County maintained a strong history of black-owned farms that provided for some economic base. In recent years, however, large corporate agriculture has supplanted these family-owned farms.

Bettieanne Hart, a board member of The Sapelo Foundation, is a resident of Burke County. She says that while the county’s elected leadership has become more diverse, economic power is still in the hands of whites.

Hart noted that the $25 billion Vogtle Nuclear Plant, located within the county, has brought in new workers, but they are primarily white residents of neighboring Richmond County who send their children to school in Richmond.

Hart noted the county suffers from two competing forces.

“First, the rurality of the place means low population numbers and less infrastructure and that means that Burke County is not competitive with funders,” she said. “Second, funds are often given to the larger cities in the region for us but we never see the trickle down”

Lora Smith, director and co-founder of the Appalachian Impact Fund based at the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, said she was not surprised to learn eight of the country’s most disadvantaged counties are in the area she serves – she noted, however, that one report doesn’t paint a full picture.

“These are places of historic disinvestment, built off the exploitation of labor and natural resources by industry that extracted timber, coal, and wealth from the Appalachian region,” she says. “What these lists don’t capture, though, is what is good and how people are continually working toward moving forward.”

Smith says philanthropy can help reverse the tides of disinvestment through longterm support of local organizations, general operating support and civic engagement work. She is clear, however, that national funders dropping a lot of money may do more harm than good unless investments are guided and administered by local place-based funders and intermediaries. “This requires national funders to trust communities,” she says, noting previous partnerships with the Marguerite Casey Foundation, a national funder, and the Louisville-based James Graham Brown Foundation.

The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky has been particularly active in the midst of COVID-19. While the numbers of COVID-19 cases have been relatively small – perhaps reflecting limited testing – the foundation has stepped up in major ways to respond to the economic impact of the pandemic.

“Entrepreneurship has been a major driver for this economic transition and there is a real concern that our entrepreneurial sector may not be able to recover. Many of our Main Street businesses have working owners and few employees and have been shut out of federal programs,” Smith said. In response, the foundation created, with financial support from private and government funders, the Southeast Kentucky Downtown Business Stimulus Fund. To date, 153 grants ranging from $600 to $3,000 have been awarded to a mix of restaurants, unique retail, amusement and others active in the broader downtown and tourism ecosystems. In addition, the foundation also created the Central Appalachia Family Farm Fund with local partners making grants directly to farmers and producers.

Christine Reeves Strigaro, executive director of The Sapelo Foundation, hopes that the new index will stimulate a focus on rural Georgia.

“In the words of my wise and strategic colleagues from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation, there are ‘two Georgias’ – Atlanta and everywhere else,” she says. “There are many states, like Georgia, that have one major metro area. These states face this same geographic, social, economic, political, and environmental dilemma. However, we can also view this dilemma as an opportunity.”

Strigaro noted that Sapelo’s new strategic plan prioritizes statewide efforts that meaningfully include rural communities and smaller cities, as well as local or regional efforts outside metro Atlanta. COVID-19 has caused the Sapelo Foundation to significantly increase funding for 2020. Additionally, the foundation’s board will look at spending policy each of the next three years in an effort to advance mission and support of its grantee partners with geographic priorities in two rural counties Doughtery and Glynn. Doughtery County has the fourth-highest number of COVID-19 cases per capita globally.

“Glynn County was selected following the egregious murder of Mr. Ahmaud Arbery and the emergence of a coalition dedicated to justice for Mr. Arbery and solutions for systemic change that address root causes of entrenched and structural racial injustices”, Strigaro said.

Lindsay Harper, executive director of Georgia WAND and a Sapelo Foundation grantee, works with Burke County residents toward Georgia WAND’s focus on nuclear harm reduction and climate justice. The impact of nuclear expansion on eastern Georgia and the forecasted effects on the environment are “seated in environmental justice and systemic racism,” she says.

Harper suggested funders understand “the multidimensional aspects” of what the report’s findings mean.

“We have stopped characterizing communities as ‘low-income’ and now describe them as communities of ‘lowwealth,’” she says. “To characterize people’s lived circumstances through the lens of systemic racism does not honor the fact that people are not without resources because of their own doing. This only continues to perpetuate the same system and stigmatize people. It is important to discuss the multi-dimensional aspects of what data like this really means.”

This article originally appeared in the Southeastern Council of Foundations’ Inspirations Magazine in July 2020.

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