The Legacy of Structural Poverty in Alabama

In rural Alabama, a long history of racial inequality and poverty has left people struggling to survive in uninhabitable housing.

November 18, 2020, 10:00 AM PST

By Camille Fink


Vacant Properties

R. Wellen Photography / Shutterstock

Catherine Coleman Flowers recounts her experience at the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice working with residents in Lowndes County, Alabama, where she grew up. "A big part of my work now is educating people about rural poverty and environmental injustice — about how poor people around the United States are trapped in conditions no one else would put up with. Those conditions — polluted air, tainted water, untreated sewage — make people sick."

Residents in this part of Alabama are largely Black and poor, notes Flowers. About 90 percent of households in Lowndes County do not have adequate wastewater systems. In addition, many homes are crowded, rundown, and lack heat in the winter.

Flowers tells the story of Pamela Rush, who lived with her two children in a decrepit trailer with mold and faulty wiring. "At the rear of the home, overlooking a small yard and dense woods, was a collapsed deck. Beside the deck a pipe spewed raw sewage onto the ground. The toilet paper and feces told a story of the lost American dream much more clearly than Pam ever could."

Rush was trapped because she had to make payments on a mortgage for a property that essentially had no value. After two years of working with Flowers' organization, Rush was preparing to move her family into better housing but tragically died of Covid-19 in July. "The forces of structural poverty were too strong," says Flowers.

Saturday, November 14, 2020 in The New York Times

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