At first glance, rural communities appear to have nothing to worry about when it comes to social connectedness. After all, rural communities generally report higher levels of many indicators of social connectedness than urban communities, including better access to networks of emotional and social support. But these statistics mask a hidden challenge in social connectedness unique to rural communities: rural poverty.
Rural poverty presents a unique challenge from urban poverty, because it is exacerbated by some aspects of rural living—such as reduced transit infrastructure, large distances to services and low population densities—that make it harder for those living in poverty to access resources. As a result, those who live in poverty in rural communities may actually have much lower levels of social connectedness, because economic barriers can prevent them from accessing public activities, organizations and networks and increase the likelihood of them being socially isolated.
So what does all this mean for a rural community?
It means that sometimes, even communities who have worked hard to cultivate social connectedness through planning, policies and programs can still unintentionally leave those in poverty out of opportunities for social connection. Poverty in rural communities is an understudied condition, but what we do know is that it’s much more “hidden”—meaning that those living alongside of others living in poverty may not even realize how it impacts opportunities for social connectedness.
How do you make sure your community isn’t unintentionally leaving folks out of opportunities to connect?
Use an equity lens.
An equity lens is an approach to planning that ensures that opportunities, power and resources are fairly distributed to meet the needs of all people, regardless of age, ability, gender, or background.
Here are some ways you can apply an equity lens to your planning to ensure that more members of your community can benefit from your social connectedness efforts:
- Identify social connectedness assets (things like events and infrastructure) and consider who isn’t able to benefit from them due to poverty-related barriers. Are there some simple ways that you can make it easier for people to access opportunities for social connectedness? For example, you could ensure that your community event has a “no one turned away for lack of funds” policy, that it’s at a location serviced by transit, or that free or low-cost childcare is offered on-site. You could also partner with a safe-ride organization to arrange transportation for those living in areas not serviced by transit.
- Actively seek out and listen to feedback from diverse individuals about what’s working and what isn’t—just asking the general public for feedback is not enough. This is also a great opportunity to build relationships between those who wouldn’t normally connect, which in itself can boost social connectedness. People living in poverty may not have access to networks where you’re posting your calls for feedback, and they may not have time to contribute to a general call for feedback, especially when they’re not sure if or how their feedback will be used. Finally, remember that people’s personal situations are not their identities and be mindful of how you solicit and receive feedback. We have programs that can help you navigate this process if you need assistance.
- Don’t make assumptions. When faced with tight budgets and short deadlines, it can be easy to go with assumptions rather than actually speaking to those who know from lived experience. However, plans and policies are only as good as the premises they’re built on. A small amount of consultation can be a huge investment in ensuring that your social connectedness efforts reach everyone in your community.
PlanH has information, resources and funding available to help your community with plans, policies and programs to improve social connectedness in your community. Get started by downloading our Social Connectedness Action Guide, checking out the Social Connectedness Resources in our Rural Resource Portal, or signing up for our PlanH eNews to stay in the loop about our upcoming grant opportunities.
 Mickelson, K.D. & Kubzansky, L.D. Am J Community Psychol (2003) 32: 265. (p. 266–272)
 Halseth, G., & Ryser, L. (2010). A primer for understanding issues around rural poverty. CDI Publication Series. Prince George, BC: Community Development Institute, University of Northern BC.(p. 2,6,16)
 Ibid, p. 3