Dollar stores are one of the nation's fastest-growing retail segments, and they're thriving in rural America where big box stores can't survive. But some experts see them as an unsettling signpost about the future of rural America. "Some analysts see their proliferation as a bellwether of a widening gap between economic classes," Jason Nark reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Garrick Brown, director for retail research at commercial real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, told Bloomberg's Mya Frazier that "Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America . . . It’s based on the concept that the jobs went away, and the jobs are never coming back, and that things aren’t going to get better in any of these places."

Rural Pennsylvanians told Nark that stores like Dollar General, Family Dollar and Dollar Tree fill the need for a grocery store; many live in rural "food deserts," which the Department of Agriculture defines as a low-income rural community where at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population live more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store (usually defined as one having 50,000 square feet). Rural shoppers may also be attracted by dollar stores' lineup of competitively priced name brand items that normally would only be available at larger stores.

Dollar Tree Vice President Randy Guiler told Nark that a big factor in dollar stores' rural success is saving time, when the nearest big-box store could be an hour away. "I think the customer today is time-starved," he said. Dollar stores are "an attractive spot to stop for their fill-in needs. People need items at different times of the week."