And the Rural Poor Get Poorer

By Maharidge, Dale | The Nation, January 6, 1992 | Go to article overview

And the Rural Poor Get Poorer


Maharidge, Dale, The Nation


And the Rural Poor Get Poorer

The road leading to Marysville, California, passes through some of the best farmland in the world, thick with orchards of peach, nectarine and prune. It's also a land rich with shacks and trailers and people - like that woman walking on the side of the road. With her tumbleweed hair and eyes as fierce as a winter sky, she is straight out of one of Dorothea Lange's Farm Security Administration pictures. This isn't surprising, given that Lange may have met the woman's grandmother while photographing the first New Deal government camp opened here in 1935 for Dust Bowl migrants. That camp was run by Tom Collins, who helped John Steinbeck in his research for The Grapes of Wrath.

All these years later, the Joads aren't doing so well. A movie-version sequel would find Rose of Sharon living her senior years in leaking shanty housing in Marysville, threatened by gentrification. Tom Joad's modern counterpart would be a victim of an unprecedented wave of rural unemployment, or working for the minimum wage, perhaps hooked on crank (methamphetamine), a rural version of crack preferred by impoverished whites. And others among the poor in the iconographic Central Valley, the Mexican and East Indian farmworkers, would be even worse off.

Rural poverty is far worse than its inner-city counterpart. Excluding crime, someone is now actually better off being poor (in terms of social services and jobs) in the South Bronx, Compton or Liberty City. Yet the illusion persists that the rural poor have it better, out there in the fresh air, with plenty of room to grow root cellars full of food.

We live in an age of ironies, and one of the most cruel is that many people who live where the food is grown are least able to acquire it. The rural poor often have no land to grow food on and pay more for it than people do in the cities, according to a Public Voice for Food and Health Policy study. Few competitively priced supermarkets exist - rural America averages just one supermarket every 265 square miles. There is a more limited availability of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats in those stores than in urban areas. At the same time, Public Voice says, the rural poor routinely exhibit clinical symptoms of hunger. And they are more prone to illness but have far fewer doctors, according to a 1991 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The study found just 97 physicians per 100,000 residents in rural areas, compared with 225 per 100,000 in cities; 111 rural countries had no physician at all.

Other studies show that working rural people are twice as likely to be poor as working central-city residents and have more limited access to adequate housing. While the rural poverty rate has always been higher than in the cities, each succeeding year following World War II saw rural conditions improve. According to the Agriculture Department, that changed in 1973, when a backslide started. According to the Population Reference Bureau, for at least twenty years prior to 1980, rural unemployment was lower than that of urban areas. Now the unemployment rate is higher, and the income gap between metro and nonmetro workers continues to widen. In 1979 rural workers earned $4,800 a year less than urbanites; in 1989, the department reports, the difference was $6,400 (in constant dollars). In places like Marysville, the jobless rate is consistently above 10 percent, rising to 15 percent in the winter. As in urban America, the official figure does not include the marginally employed.

The rural poor are not welfare cheats, as the far right would have you believe about people who live in shacks and trailers. When doing research in rural Alabama for a book tracing the fate of the 128 survivors and offspring of the cottom sharecroppers documented by James Agee and Walker Evans in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, I found none who were on welfare. Seven out of ten impoverished rural family heads work, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. …

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