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Rural poverty “less visible,” says Washington sociologist

Getty Images/Courtesy of USDA Economic Research Service

As the housing crisis continues across the Northwest, only three counties in Washington are affordable for first time homebuyers.

What does “taking care of your own” look like for small Northwest towns after COVID relief expired six months ago?

The CARES Act approved by Congress in 2020 established a $150 billion dollar Coronavirus Relief Fund. It provided payments to state, local, and tribal governments, but relief expired at the end of 2021.

Sociologist Jennifer Sherman, a professor at Washington State University, says this is affecting rural communities of the Northwest.

“Very often, rural housing insecurity looks different," she said. "It might mean, doubling up or couch surfing or things like that. You’re less likely to have any kinds of services for the rural poor as well. So I think I think they're less visible and easier to ignore.”

Sherman, who studies rural poverty and income inequality, suggests policymakers look into subsidizing things like housing, healthcare, childcare and food. Expanding access to life’s necessities could especially help vulnerable populations, she says.

A report this spring from Pew Research on the “Great Resignation” found the main reasons workers quit their jobs in 2021 was due to low pay, lack of advancement opportunities, and feeling “disrespected.”

Now, many of those people branded as “essential” to society during the pandemic are being driven out of their communities by the high cost of housing.

“If we really want people to work, and it seems like we do, we need to make sure that they also can still have a family and go to work that they also can stay healthy so that they can work and you just can't have that expectation, but then no provision for things like caring for a child," Sherman said.

Her book, Dividing Paradise: Rural Inequality and The Diminishing American Dream, was released last spring. It’s based on her studies as she immersed herself in a small Washington community.