Persistent Poverty in Rural America

Persistent Poverty in Rural America

Persistent Poverty in Rural America

Persistent Poverty in Rural America


Why does rural poverty persist? Despite a variety of programs and policies that have attempted to improve the lot of the poor over the past twenty-five years, rural poverty not only persists but is getting worse. The Rural Sociological Society Task Force on Persistent Rural Poverty was organized to search for answers that will lead to effective solutions. A team of more than fifty leading social scientists- anthropologists, economists, geographers, political scientists, social workers, and sociologists- worked together to examine all the leading explanations; to seek out logical flaws, obsolete beliefs, and factually discredited ideas; and to analyze incomplete explanations. This important volume presents the Task Force's findings. The Task Force report explains that the "culture of poverty" theory is logically flawed and lacks factual support and that the human capital and economic organization theories are incomplete. Alone, none of these theories provides an adequate explanation for persistent rural poverty. The book reveals new directions in theory that should provide a firmer foundation for antipoverty programs and policies: Gender, race, and ethnicity must be explicitly integrated into explanations of poverty; local events and processes need to be linked to global changes; and explanations for the intergenerational transmission of poverty should be looked for in community social structures. The Task Force also explores how macrolevel economics and national and state actions contribute to the persistence of rural poverty.


To appreciate this volume, one needs to know how the Task Force on Persistent Rural Poverty came into being and how it was that Gene Summers became its director. This Foreword will provide some of this background and offer an opinion on the significance of the scholarship reported herein.

Gene Summers is a member and vice chairman of the National Rural Studies Committee. The NRSC is a multi-disciplinary group of scholars appointed for the purpose of encouraging those in higher education to give greater attention to the problems of rural America. It was made possible by a grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation to Oregon State University; its membership includes people from several disciplines, different regions of the Nation, and from both public and private academic institutions. The work of the Committee began in 1987 and will continue until 1995. I serve as its chair.

The Committee has attempted to inform itself about rural America in a number of ways, including meetings and field trips in the Pacific Northwest, the South, the Midwest, the Northeast, and Southwest. The meeting in the South was in the Mississippi Delta. While there, the Committee spent time with community leaders, residents of small towns, and workers in the catfish industry.

After the Mississippi meeting, some of the Committee members, including Gene Summers, wrote about their reactions to the meeting and field trip in the Delta. Gene's experience there triggered memories of his family and his childhood. His was a poor rural family from the same region of the nation. He related in a very personal way to the experiences of those with whom we talked and observed during the meetings and field trip. Those of us privileged to share in Gene's written observations were impressed with the way those childhood and family experiences have shaped the conceptual lens through which this sophisticated social scientist views the world. These experiences as well as his education as a sociologist provide motivation and permit observations not available to many others.

About the time of the Mississippi meeting Gene was also assuming the presidency of the Rural Sociological Society. He testifies that he was so affected by the Mississippi experience that he was moved to bring the matter of persistent rural poverty to the attention of the Council of the Society. The . . .

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