The New York Times reported earlier this week that high gas prices are taking a serious toll on rural populations across the United States. This is particularly true in rural areas throughout the South, where poverty and low incomes are forcing families to choose between food and gas.

In many rural areas, local restaurants and businesses are experiencing decreasing sales, and some are even closing down. Factories are cutting workers, while some workers are forced to quit their jobs because they cannot afford the longer commutes common in rural areas.

According to the NYT article, Americans nationwide are now spending about 4 percent of their take-home income on gasoline. By contrast, in some counties in the Mississippi Delta, that figure reaches as high as 16 percent. A survey conducted by the Oil Price Information Service detailed that of the 13 counties where people spent 13 percent or more of their family income on gasoline, 5 were located in Mississippi, 4 were in Alabama, 3 were in Kentucky and 1 was in West Virginia.

From a policy perspective, higher gas prices are often praised by public transportation advocates and environmentalists who see increasing prices as an opportunity to push for alternatives to U.S gas dependency. In fact, the U.S. Transportation Department reported last month that in March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles than in March 2007. In many urban areas in the United States soaring gas prices are convincing more people to take public transit, with subways, streetcars, trolleys and other light rail experiencing a 10.3 percent increase in ridership for the first quarter of the year, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Even major Southern cities, such as Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans saw double digit increases in public transit use.

"Public transportation is a key part of the solution to decreasing greenhouse gases and meeting our national goal of energy independence. When more people ride public transportation, there are more reductions in carbon emissions and our country is less dependent on foreign oil," said APTA president William W. Millar in a March 2007 press release. He explained that with prices topping $4 a gallon, "there is a greater urgency for higher federal funding to expand U.S. public transportation systems so Americans have an affordable transportation choice."

The lack of affordable alternative public transportation choices is acutely felt by people across the rural South.

Little public transportation is available in many areas, and since jobs are often scarcer, longer commutes to farther-away job sites are common. Often workers have no choice but to drive more than 20 miles or more for work. Experts say that job scarcity, limited public transit, and the prevalence of less-fuel efficient vehicles such as older pickups, may combine to deepen the disparity between rural America and the rest of the country as gas prices continue to rise.

As the NYT reported:

Sociologists and economists who study rural poverty say the gasoline crisis in the rural South, if it persists, could accelerate population loss and decrease the tax base in some areas as more people move closer to urban manufacturing jobs. They warn that the high cost of driving makes low-wage labor even less attractive to workers, especially those who also have to pay for child care and can live off welfare and food stamps.

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As gas prices rise, working less could be the economically rational choice," said Tim Slack, a sociologist at Louisiana State University who studies rural poverty. "That would mean lower incomes for the poor and greater distance from the mainstream."