In “The Injustice of Place,” authors Kathryn J. Edin, H. Luke Shaefer, and Timothy J. Nelson set out to explore what poverty means when it’s encoded into place. Building on their prior work, “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America,” a study focusing on individual poverty through the experiences of families living across primarily urban areas in the South and Midwest, this book broadens the focus to examine disadvantage at the community level. 

“The Injustice of Place” comes at a time when more and more research about the connection between opportunity and geography is emerging, with studies like Raj Chetty’s work showing that a person’s ZIP code can be one of the most determinative factors in their health and economic outcomes, and the U.S. Department of Commerce recently bringing attention to data showing that geographic inequality has been rising. However, until now, much research has centered on urban poverty — despite the growing rural-urban divide. 

Refreshingly, “The Injustice of Place” sheds light on the structural and place-based nature of poverty and inequality, a valuable counterpoint to the harmful individualistic narratives about poverty, especially poverty in rural places.

The authors illustrate the common factors that contribute to the concentration of disadvantage within specific geographies. The authors combine health indicators, poverty metrics, and social mobility data in their Index of Deep Disadvantage. This index captures the precarity that lies at the intersection of different discrete measures to paint a more holistic picture of disadvantage — and more importantly, the data to understand this picture. 

Their findings underscore the overrepresentation of rural areas, which are often dismissed in conversations about disadvantage and inequity, among the most disadvantaged communities. They challenge prevailing stereotypes of rural America by highlighting the often-overlooked truth about the geography of disadvantage — most distressed rural areas share histories of extractive industries or one dominant industry, corruption, and systemic inequality.

Because rural places are often neglected or misunderstood, not enough attention has been paid to the fact that rural decline has much deeper roots than NAFTA and the China Shock (which disproportionately affected rural areas). Approximately 80% of the rural Black population resides in areas where their ancestors have lived since the post-Civil War era, reinforcing how persistent legacies of exploitation and economic decline are rooted in history. It is through diving deep into this history and data that it becomes clear the poverty of these regions is linked to their histories of exploitation. 

Many rural areas — once industry capitals — experienced decline as the world changed and successive waves of automation and globalization left the workers in these regions behind. Rural Native, Black, and Hispanic communities have been particularly vulnerable to, and deeply impacted by, policies that have intensified the effects of these changes. The book poignantly illustrates how the collapse of these single-industry economies has left voids filled by social decay, eroded community infrastructure, and predatory practices — often exacerbated by place-blind policies.

As the authors put it: “The late 1990s and early 2000s were nearly as disastrous for the Delta economy as the collapse of cotton thirty years earlier. This was not due to choices by community leaders, but to decisions made by the nation as a whole, ostensibly in the name of greater good.” (p. 201) 

These “greater good” policies are often well-intentioned but crafted without examining the disproportionate negative impact on specific populations and places. In the absence of robust, research-driven rural strategy, these specific rural impacts remain obscured from view outside the regions they impact. This can leave rural places underfunded when it comes to private and public investments. And even when public funding is available, it is often a complex maze of initiatives spread across numerous departments and agencies. These structural challenges create a daunting challenge for the many rural communities lacking specialized resources like grant writers. 

The fragmentation and complexity of these policies exacerbate the difficulties rural areas face in accessing much-needed development funds, highlighting the disconnect between policy design and the realities of rural disadvantage. For example, the book highlights just one example where many rural areas are unable to access funds after a natural disaster because FEMA funding requires documentation, such as property titles, which may not be readily available for those living in homes passed down through generations. By advocating for better place-based interventions, the book underscores the importance of developing policies that are sensitive to these geographic and historic specificities of rural America. 

“The Injustice of Place” is an important book that leads to an even more important question: What now? 

The authors make a strong case for place-based community investments that can help drive economies forward, giving rural residents access to opportunity in their hometowns (a case that is bolstered by rural researchers). Recent federal investments are a good start. But more is needed to build out research-driven strategies and funding that provide long-term benefits to rural communities.

May Erouart is a Research Analyst at the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI), a national nonprofit working to shift narratives about rural possibilities, convert data into actionable insights, and build capacity for innovation and prosperity in rural communities.

It doesn’t end here.

At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century tech economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.