- "RURAL POVERTY: AMERICA'S CHRONIC PROBLEM"
- "WHO ARE THE RURAL POOR?"
- "RURAL COMMUNITIES' UNIQUE ECONOMIC, RESOURCE
- "POVERTY CREATES RELATED SOCIAL, ECONOMIC PROBLEMS FOR
- "FEDERAL PROGRAMS FAIL TO MEET RURAL NEEDS"
- "COMMUNITY-BASED DEVELOPMENT ATTACKS POVERTY"
RURAL POVERTY: AMERICA'S CHRONIC PROBLEM
"We like to think of small-town America as being
impervious to the grim trends of poverty and social
disintegration that are rampant elsewhere. The truth is
very different ... Our nation's experience with rural
poverty stretches far into our past." -- Osha Gray
Davidson, Broken Heartland: The Rise of America's Rural
Over the past 60 years, Americans have made efforts to
address the problem of poverty in both rural and urban
areas. Beginning in 1935, the federal government
enacted Title V of the Social Security Act which aimed
to ensure the health of mothers and children,
particularly those in rural areas, who were suffering
from poverty. Since then, our country has made
available feeding, nutrition and other health programs
as well as general economic aid to assist the poor.
But, after dropping sharply between 1960 and 1970, rural
and urban poverty are again on the increase.
While the problems facing our inner cities have been
well documented over the past several decades, the
economic and social concerns associated with poverty in
rural locations has remained invisible to most
Americans. Poverty has persistently plagued our
nation's rural areas -- fluctuating in degree with
farming disasters, factory closings and other economic
recessions. Our nation's failure to adequately address
rural poverty is evident in the number of rural poor,
which has ranged between 15 percent and 19 percent from
1970 to 1990.
Federal policy aimed at poverty alleviation has not
adequately addressed both the short and long-term needs
of our country's rural poor. In order to meet immediate
needs, many of the rural poor must rely on non-
governmental economic and social assistance from
churches, schools, neighbors and private rural
organizations. Likewise, rural residents in
economically depressed areas are developing their own
long-term solutions by organizing cooperative community
development programs and businesses.
The nation's countryside continues to hold a greater
share of poor residents than urban cities. Between 1960
and 1970, the rural poverty rate dropped from 33 percent
to 17 percent; but has continued to fluctuate between 15
percent and 19 percent since then. This compares to a
range of 15 percent to 13 percent during the same time
period in urban areas. The rural poverty rate has
remained higher than the overall metropolitan rate.
WHO ARE THE RURAL POOR?
More than 80 percent of the nation's rural poor live in
the Appalachia and Ozark-Ouachita areas, and the
Mississippi Delta. There also exist pockets of poverty
in the Northern Plains, the corn belt and the Pacific-
Northwest. Rural residents most affected by poverty in
these areas increasingly include children, minorities,
Children. Children represent one of the largest and
growing groups of rural poor. The proportion of
children living in poverty in rural areas increased by
35.6 percent from 1973 to 1992. Researchers at the
Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition
Policy project that the poverty rate for rural children
will increase by 25 percent between 1992-2010. "Today,
millions of American children live in a distinctly
different country, a land of poverty," wrote Tufts
University sociologists Larry Brown and John Cook in a
1994 study titled, "Two Americas: Comparisons of U.S.
Child Poverty in Rural, Inner City and Suburban Areas."
Minorities. The majority of high-poverty rural
counties, as defined by the USDA, are characterized as
African American, Hispanic, and American Indian.
African Americans, by far, account for the highest level
of poverty among these groups and the nation as a whole.
Many of the African American poor were once small-scale
or tenant farmers and now rely on seasonal work as farm
laborers. The level of poor African Americans as a
percent of the total population is estimated to be over
50 percent in more than 100 of 255 Southern rural
counties rated as high in poverty.
Farmers. Farmers continue to account for a significant
portion of the poor population. Between 1988 and 1990
twice as many farm operator households were impoverished
compared to the rest of the nation. However, farm
poverty, like rural poverty as a whole, is often
invisible to the rest of the country. Farmers own
sizable assets, such as tractors, buildings and land,
and consequently on paper appear financially well-off.
But in reality many farmers are saddled with debt and
rising production costs that offset the value of their
assets. The USDA calculated in 1994 that average farm
household income totaled only $4,600 -- more than 50
percent below the nation's poverty line. As a
consequence, almost 500 farm families continue leaving
their land each week.
When a farm family loses its land, they lose their job
and their home. Often they are left with few realistic
prospects for alternative employment.
RURAL COMMUNITIES' UNIQUE ECONOMIC, RESOURCE DIFFICULTIES
Rural poverty is growing in scope owing to a number of
economic and social changes in the countryside.
Although the exact roots are complex, the following
structural shifts have played a strong role in creating
poor rural areas: farm outmigration, de-
industrialization of logging and mining, and limited
investment. These larger shifts have, in turn, created
direct problems leading to poverty.
The Rural Sociological Task Force on Persistent Rural
Poverty, organized by four university Regional Centers
on Rural Development to identify important research
issues that could improve rural economies, outlined the
direct causes of rural poverty into three elements.
They are as follows:
1. Job Scarcity: Closure of manufacturing plants which
had provided employment for farmers, loggers and miners
when jobs in resource-based industries began to fold,
has created job scarcity in rural areas. In 1990, the
USDA Economic Research Service estimated that only 47
jobs existed for every 100 people in non-metro areas.
The USDA found in 1990 that rural counties with
persistent poverty rates of at least 20 percent were
classified by employment in the following way:
Principle # of Poor Counties
The poverty rate remains high for the rural employed
because the available jobs pay little, are often
seasonal or part-time, and are limited in occupation.
2. Depressed Wages. Employment alone, however, does
not secure a family from poverty. Job scarcity and
limited professional skills in rural areas have led to
depressed rural wages. "Chronic poverty in the poverty
counties involves both a human resources problem and
lack of opportunities for jobs that pay decent wages,"
wrote the ERS in a 1994 study on persistent poverty.
Although the number of jobs in rural areas grew by
slightly more than six percent between 1979 -89,
earnings only increased by 0.1 percent in poor rural
This has led to a large population of working poor in
rural counties. Sixty-five percent of poor rural
families had at least one member who was formally
employed. Likewise, almost half of full-time, full-year
rural workers with a high school degree earned less than
the poverty line, while the share of college educated
rural residents who were poor was 57 percent higher than
urban college graduates.
Economic problems faced by farmers have exacerbated the
rural employment situation. Thousands of adults and
families who once farmed have left their land in search
of rural and urban jobs. Likewise, despite accounting
for a small portion of the rural population, surviving
farm residents, faced with significant farm income
losses, have been forced to rely on off-farm income to
supplement their on-farm earnings. Farmers' increasing
dependence on off-farm income has created more
competition for scarce rural jobs.
3. Disincentives to Invest in Education: School boards
have little incentive to invest heavily in rural
education because many graduates leave rural areas for
jobs in metro areas. As schools shut
down across the American countryside because fewer and
fewer young families stay to raise their children,
remaining rural schoolchildren are faced with
deteriorating educational, and consequently economic,
POVERTY CREATES RELATED SOCIAL, ECONOMIC PROBLEMS FOR
Poverty is directly related to other economic and social
problems facing rural communities, such as hunger,
malnutrition and homelessness:
Hunger. Ironically, the problem of hunger strikes rural
America, home of world's most productive farms, at a
startling rate. The Harvard School of Public Health's
Physician Task Force on Hunger in America found in 1986
that of the country's 150 worst "Hunger Counties," 97
percent were in rural areas.
Malnutrition. A 1988 study by Public Voice, titled,
"Patterns of Risk: The Nutritional Status of the Rural
Poor," found that infant mortality rates were 50 percent
higher in rural areas than urban areas due to growth
retardation. Researchers also found that there had been
an increase in the number of low-birth-weight infants
in rural counties, nutrient deficiencies such as iron
anemia and diets dangerously low in vitamins like A and
Homelessness. A report released February 9, 1996 by the
USDA states that rural homeless include migrant workers
and people in places where single industries like
mining, logging and farming have collapsed. The report
says homeless people in rural areas have few "cushions"
-- rural communities rarely have the shelters, soup
kitchens and services to help people find places to live
Shelter or housing costs usually absorb more than 30
percent of a poor family's income -- leaving less money
for other necessary items like food, heat,
transportation, health care and clothing. Even in
"fast-growing" rural counties, a comparison of 1980 and
1990 census data showed that rents grew at faster rates
than incomes. Rents grew by 103 percent during this
period, while incomes grew by 90 percent.
FEDERAL PROGRAMS FAIL TO MEET RURAL NEEDS
"Imagine your community without health care access,
programs for youth, shelters for the homeless or safety
for battered women and children. Your nearest neighbor
is miles away, and you do not have an automobile. There
are no buses, no taxis. If there were such services,
you couldn't afford them. If you can imagine all that,
you can empathize with the outstate poor ..." wrote
Kristine Holmgren, pastor of Laurel Presbyterian Church
in Hager, Wisconsin, in 1994.
In theory, government programs, such as the Summer Food
Service Program for Children, Aid to Families With
Dependent Children (AFDC), and the Supplemental Feeding
Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), are
available to help the nation's poor cope with problems
such as hunger, malnutrition and health.
However, despite national availability of these
programs, rural residents face unique difficulties
accessing them. Many rural communities are isolated,
which creates delivery of services more complicated.
Likewise, because a significant share of rural poor are
employed or are headed by two-parent households, federal
assistance is often refused. AFDC, for example,
disqualifies working families despite their income
level, while two-parent families are discouraged from
seeking health care assistance. Additionally, in some
states, able-bodied adults needing welfare assistance
must show that they have been in touch with up to as
many as 20 different employers each month in order to
retain their welfare benefits. For the rural poor this
poses a serious problem since employment is limited and
COMMUNITY-BASED DEVELOPMENT ATTACKS POVERTY
An even larger problem for rural poor exists than
accessing federal programs, says Rural Coalition
director Lorette Picciano-Hanson. Adequate federal
rural development assistance is needed.
"We're not apologizing for being poor," Picciano-Hanson
says. "We have community development ideas and we
deserve the same federal assistance and resources to set
up small businesses and generate trade that are extended
to other counties."
The Rural Coalition has been working with residents in
poverty-stricken Southern counties to encourage
community-based development that takes advantage of
local skills, ideas and resources.
"It's a new way of thinking about development,"
Picciano-Hanson explains. "Community-based
organizations have been around for a long time -- they
have a sense of the community's history and its needs."
She says that President Clinton's Enterprise Community
and Empowerment Zone program is a positive example of
the types of assistance rural poor require. The program
provides technical assistance and requires cooperation
between local governments and the rural poor to develop
long-term economic solutions, capacity and confidence.
"It doesn't matter what economic project communities
undertake," Picciano-Hanson says. "As long as local
government, business and the impoverished can start
working together on long-term development strategies, we
can begin addressing the real needs of the rural poor."
"Poverty Is Persistent in Some Rural Areas," Calvin
Beale, Agricultural Outlook, USDA, September 1993.
"Patterns of Risk: The Nutritional Status of the Rural
Poor," Jeffrey Shotland, Deanna Loonin, Ellen Haas.
Public Voice, Suite 522, 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW,
Washington D.C. 20036. 1988.
"Laboring for Less: Working But Poor in Rural America,"
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, October 1989.
236 Massachusetts Ave., NE, Suite 305, Washington, D.C.
"Two Americas: Comparisons of U.S. Child Poverty in
Rural, Inner City and Suburban Areas," Larry Brown, John
Cook, TUFTS University Center on Hunger, Poverty and
Nutrition Policy, September 1994. (617) 627-3956.
Broken Heartland: The Rise of America's Rural Ghetto,
Osha Gray Davidson. 1990. The Free Press, A Division of
Macmillan Inc., 866 Third Ave., New York, NY 10022.
"Two Americas: Comparisons of U.S. Child Poverty in
Rural, Inner City and Suburban Areas," John T. Cook, J.
Larry Brown, TUFTS University Center on Hunger, Poverty
and Nutrition, September 1994. (617) 627-3956.
"Development With Dignity," Isaiah Madison, Institute
for Southern Studies. Durham, NC, (919) 419-8311.
Farm Aid News is produced by the Institute for
Agriculture and Trade Policy for Farm Aid. Editors
Harry Smith and Gigi DiGiacomo.
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