Out on the South Plains of Texas where I work, most farmers will tell you not to plant until after Easter. That’s because the threat of a late freeze is negligible, the winds generally begin to die down, and most importantly, if we’re going to get rain, that’s the time it comes readily. These are all good things to have happen when planting a crop.

That’s what everybody is thinking about in the agricultural world this time of year while the rest of us take it all for granted. Maybe the closest we get to that world is in the produce section of our local supermarket or at our favorite home and garden center as we purchase hanging baskets filled with geraniums, pansies, or tulips. We rarely think about the people that provide all those pleasant things to eat and that bring delight to our eyes.

Most people don’t know that non-Hispanic white people about 80% of the US rural population in 2010 but accounted for only 25% of rural population growth in the previous decade. African Americans are still the largest rural minority population, but rural-living Hispanic populations increased about 45% to 3.8 million from 2000-2010. Other ethnic groups show similar trends, with rural Native Americans increasing by 8% and rural Asian populations increasing by 37%. What that means is the face of rural America is changing.

Smarter people than I are writing and talking about the three “Ds” reshaping the demographics of rural counties in the U.S. – depopulation, deaths, and diversity.  What they mean is that America is becoming more urbanized, rural areas in particular are becoming older, and the mix of the population is much more colorful and cultural. I have noticed the tone of that conversation is often political and often less than optimistic, regardless of party affiliation.

I can understand that pessimism from my seat in the arena of health care. Hospital closures disproportionately affect rural communities and communities with a higher percentage of black and Hispanic residents.  It’s like a double whammy of economic discrimination in the places and people that produce the food, fuel and fiber that are the stepping stones to economic vitality. Consider this: in the ten U.S. counties with the lowest per capita income in the last decennial census, all of which are located in rural areas, white people were the majority of the population in only three of those ten counties and whites were the minority in four of those ten counties.

There are two take-away messages in this changing face of rural America.  First, there are fewer and fewer no-majority and no minority counties in the US. We are definitely much more diverse. Second, rural poverty is as looming an issue as urban poverty, and poverty is an issue that can and must be eliminated. It’s like those old farmers tell us, it won’t be until those negative factors like poverty are past that we can expect a good harvest from our planting.

I’d be shading the truth if I didn’t tell you that I am awaiting the good harvest. Out here it’s not long until we start seeing all the good things one could put in a salad – tomatoes, lettuces, radishes, squash, etc. I like that kind of diversity in my salad. But you have to have the mix of all of it to have it turn out tasty. Then, how you mix it up matters – one wants a good equity in the mix for the tastiest salad. Come to think about it, that’s probably why I’m optimistic about the changing face of rural America, but I also recognize the persistent threats that inequality, poverty and other forms of disparity pose. Working together, we must eliminate these disparities to ensure a healthy future for all rural Americans.

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Billy U. Philips Jr.
Dr. Billy U. Philips Jr. is Publisher of Rural Health Quarterly and Director of the F. Marie Hall Institute for Rural and Community Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.