On the night of the 2016 presidential election, President-elect Trump walked away with 60 percent of the vote in the nation’s 2,332 rural counties.
In Owsley County, a 200-square-mile patch of eastern Kentucky, Trump’s victory was propelled by a full 80 percent of the vote—an unsurprising outcome, perhaps, for a county seated in a congressional district that has elected and re-elected Republican representative Hal Rogers by similar margins since 1980.
And it might have been equally unsurprising that, when President Trump unveiled his proposed budget for 2019, Rogers was silent on its 10-year $213 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), if not for one thing: nearly half of Owsley County households, and well over a quarter of those in Rogers’ district at large, rely on SNAP to make ends meet.
Much attention has been devoted to rural America since the presidential election. The press, the pundits, and the public have examined it from nearly every angle, deliberating the demographic, economic, and cultural factors that may have helped the Trump campaign capitalize on the dormant discontent of a great many.
But we still don’t understand some basic facts about the people and the places that make up rural America. This is partially attributable to the destructive cultural and political narratives that tell us programs like SNAP are not a rural issue. The roots of the racist Reagan-era rhetoric on inner city “welfare queens” run deep, and despite being long debunked, one needs to look no further than President Trump’s welfare reform proposals or Speaker Paul Ryan’s comment about the tailspin of “inner-city culture” to know that its legacy lives on. This explains how someone like Hal Rogers can so casually and routinely dismiss the basic needs of such a large segment of his constituency without fear of political blowback or consequence: prevailing perceptions of who relies on America’s social safety net and why have rendered these needs largely invisible.
But the data are unambiguous: SNAP benefits people of every race, zip code, and political persuasion, all across this country. And when we ran the numbers—using publicly-available, county-level data on SNAP participation rates by household—we uncovered the startling reality that rural areas are often struggling the most.
Rural America relies on SNAP
Last year, the Food Research and Action Center highlighted a stark difference in SNAP usage by county, showing that about sixteen percent of households in small towns and rural areas are using SNAP, compared to only thirteen percent of households in urban areas. Though striking, these averages don’t fully convey the critical role that SNAP plays in many rural communities across the country. Our analysis shows that of the 50 counties with the highest household SNAP usage, all but two of them are rural. When we looked at the 150 counties with the highest household SNAP usage, we found that a full 136 are rural.
Like Owsley County, many other communities that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump—and whose representatives in Congress are keen to gut programs like SNAP—are home to a great number of families who bear a largely invisible burden of food insecurity. We have to disrupt the destructive narratives and stereotypes about who uses nutrition assistance programs. The reality is, they are here to protect all of us.
SNAP is not a wedge issue
SNAP is frequently treated as a wedge issue, but it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it is a common thread that runs through nearly every community in this country. A strong foundation of scientific evidence shows us that SNAP is an economic engine supporting jobs and livelihoods during recession and downturn; it is a sense of safety and security during unexpected gaps in employment; it is a source of income for our farmers, food producers and retailers; it is better nourishment and health for kids, and fewer hospitalizations for adults; and it is not having to choose between putting food on the table and keeping the lights on.
To continue to perpetuate the idea that nutrition assistance is partisan, and thus subject to use as a political pawn, is not only devastating to our own families, neighbors, and food producers, but also to the notion that policymakers should be held accountable for making science-based policy decisions that are in the best interest of the public.
As the farm bill, and with it the fate of some of our most critical federal assistance programs, continues to play out over the course of the next year, we’ll continue to highlight data that sheds light on the reality of food access and SNAP use in rural America and beyond—and how elected officials can use this information to make policy decisions that protect us all. Stay tuned.