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"The Overlooked Americans" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

In “The Overlooked Americans,” Elizabeth Currid- Halkett, a professor of public policy, dismantles long-held urban and suburban stereotypes about rural life in the United States through her extensive research and analysis. Typical damaging preconceptions of rural America are that small-town populations are declining because of the loss of jobs, that rural areas are hotbeds of right-wing extremism, and that angry residents have turned to drugs to control their bitterness toward urban life.

Currid-Halkett uses a simple definition to distinguish between “urban” and “rural” areas."

“Any five-digit zip code area whose centroid lay within 25 miles of the centroid of a Census-designated place (CDP ) with a population of at least 300,000 was designated as urban. Any 5-digit zip code area that failed to meet that criterion was designated as “rural.”

The author is critical of journalists, academicians, and politicians who summarize rural America with detrimental myths. She replaces those damaging myths with compassionate portraits of the complexity of rural Americans. She purports, and her research verifies, that many rural citizens are educated, civic-minded, and have a higher quality of life than many urban residents. She finds rural folks to be as diverse ideologically and politically as city folks, and rural residents to be as hardworking and entrepreneurial as the rest of society. Her work reveals America is not as polarized and divided by geography as the media and politicians depict and that they share core values about trusting in democracy, opposing racism, and encouraging environmentalism.

After completing a blend of statistical inquiries and telephone interviews with a wide range of rural residents, the author concludes that “the depiction of rural America as a cultural backwater, rife with pathologies and problems” does not reflect the everyday life of the 20% of U.S. citizens who live in rural areas. Her research indicates rural citizens’ lives are as “varied and diverse” as their urban counterparts.

The author has a reputation among academics and social commentators for being an impressive observer of cultural trends, and she does a masterful job of combining qualitative and quantitative research to write a readable, sometimes astonishing appeal for Americans to reach across the rural-urban gap to discover that the actual divide is not very wide. Her book is sure to raise many questions and initiate much discussion.

About the Author: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Southern California. She is a Guggenheim fellowship recipient and holds the Kluge Chair in Modern Culture at the Library of Congress. Basic Books is the publisher of this 397-page study containing many charts, graphs, appendices, and references.

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