The Other America — Poorer, Smaller


Get in the car and drive. Go on a road trip.  Leave the freeways. Find some two-lane blacktop, Blue Highways as William Least Heat-Moon called them in his 1991 book. “A Journey into America” was the subtitle. That’s where you’re going.

Like Least Heat-Moon, you’ll drive into rural and small-town America and find that today it’s in many ways not much different from that America of more than 30 years ago. What’s different now is where you’re from.

In rural and small-town America the houses are mostly still the same size and they cost less. That helps because incomes there are generally lower than in the city you set out from. Rural America is a long way from Silicon Valley – or any major metro. The employment offered in those areas is pretty much non-existent in rural communities. So, too, the large employment and pay of government centers.       

Lower incomes, lower cost housing. Except, of course, in notable tourist areas, the coast, around famed ski areas – areas where service employees can’t afford the rent.

But that’s not where you are. Driving into nearly every small town you’ll first see the trailer parks, the mobile home parks. Those are two different things. The trailer parks are pretty much nowadays for people living in RVs. The smaller ones, often not much different in size from the ones homeless people park on city streets, better kept but definitely not the Marathon buses tricked out as homes starting at 200 grand used. You’ll think those places look pretty unappealing. Trailer parks are where the poor live (3.1 million according to “Non-profit Quarterly”).

Mobile home parks are a step up. Mostly single-wides inhabit the older places. Douple-wides are a step up, well-space with gardens, plenty of owner pride and nice streets. Some communities are even gated. Still, way less expensive than Craftsman houses in the coastal cities. But even there, lot prices and rents are rising.

Altogether these are the homes of lower income people, the lower middle class, really.  According to NPR, 20 million Americans live in 43,000 mobile home parks. But only a few of these places, if any, still exist in your metropolitan area. They’ve been sold for development, the residents moved on.

Drive past the trailer and mobile home parks into the residential streets of small towns. The homes you’ll see are modest, few upgraded like those in your city’s neighborhoods, small compared to what you’re used to seeing, small compared to you and your neighbors’ houses.

 Seeing all this, you might think small town America is another country and you’d be right, maybe not surprised that folks there feel left out, resentful of the wealth and power accumulated where you came from.

Seeing all this, it’s hard to escape the realization that there are two Americas. Doubt that? Drive home and watch television ads. Which country is portrayed?


Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly
Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered local government from the neighborhoods to City Hall and Seattle Public Schools. He later served as a public information officer and planner for Seattle Public Utilities, with a stint in the mayor’s office as press secretary for Mayor Paul Schell. He has written on politics for and the Seattle Times as well as Post Alley.


  1. Basic question is whether those rural & small-town folks like it the way the way it is.

    I’m guessing that the ones who don’t like it (younger ones, anyway) have already left.

    But if they’re satisfied, then we should be too.

  2. Thanks, Dick, for this smart, pithy take on rural America (and urban America’s ignorance and condescension). Way better take than JD Vance, “Hillbilly Elegy,” which was as cruel and superficial as he is. Your final lines about TV hints at the cultural problem documented in Kathy Cramer’s wonderful book, “The Politics of Resentment.”

  3. I’m delighted to read this piece from Dick Lilly. I know people who live in Appalachia, and in small towns in Texas. They know many Americans laugh at them, refer to them as Trailer Trash. Trust me, they know it.

    When did it become acceptable in American to sneer at another’s poverty?

    They also get it that Donald Trump is only phonily in their corner. But they say, “he pretends to care” which is why their neighbors will vote for him.

  4. Maybe poorer and easily sneered at ~ but small town America is also cheap, clean, safe, friendly and where more and more artists go to live and work. I know because it’s happening here in Waitsburg.


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