Rural Poor Denied Work, Health Care and Respect

Article excerpt

For from media centers, the rural poor often are overlooked. Chronic unemployment in some states breeds myriad social and personal problems especially ill health.

Jean Devoid, 59, has learned to get by without teeth. When they were pulled 20 years ago after decay and infection had set in, she didn't have $600 to buy dentures. By now, she copes so well that her only dietary restrictions are nuts and corn on the cob.

Her 62-year-old husband, Leo, is having a harder time. His teeth were pulled three years ago, the procedure paid for by a local community-action group. He's hoping that Medicare will buy him a set of dentures when he turns 65. "The bone ain't quite right," he says, his mouth working anxiously "It bothers me some."

The faces of Jean and Leo Devoid, sunken-mouthed and sallow from chronic ill health, are the faces of rural poverty in America. Indeed, they are part of a growing underclass of people who are at least as poor as their innercity counterparts, according to a report recently published by the Washington-based Center for Demographic Policy of the Institute for Educational Leadership. (The center studies specific population groups for corporate sponsors; in this case, Exxon Corp. and U S West, the long-distance telephone carrier, jointly sponsored a study on rural youth with an eye toward their future customer base.)

"There are so many misinterpretations about rural families," says Harold L. Hodgkinson, the lead author of "The Invisible Poor: Rural Youth in America." "People think rural families are like the Waltons; they think they're all farmers living on the land. In fact, the vast majority of people living in rural America have no connection to farming whatsoever."

Instead of close-knit agrarian communities, the researchers found an aging population of sick people who can't afford health care and don't have access to it even if they could. They found rural youth fleeing their homes to find liveable wages and doing so in such numbers that Hodgkinson called it "a hemorrhage." They found a workforce deserted by manufacturers moving offshore.

A University of Wiscon found that fewer than half of all rural counties grew in population during the last decade; in fact, says Hodgkinson, a number of rural counties in the West are in imminent danger of bankruptcy because the cost of providing services now exceeds the revenue from tax collections.

"In rural Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, North Carolina or Montana, poverty does not jump out at you, you must seek it out," Hodgkinson wrote in his introduction to the study. "There are no crowds of rural poor youth.... Low-density populations are harder to locate and categorize and much harder to organize politically. The television sound truck would have to be parked off the road and the camera crew may have to walk half a mile to find one impoverished household."

Nevertheless, the scope of rural poverty is large, both in terms of population and geography. The rural population overall is estimated at S6 million to 66 million people, depending on the definition of rural. Of those, about 9 million are estimated to live in poverty, based upon the amount of income required to buy food for a family of four, which differs state by state. More than half of the rural poor live in the South, while a quarter live in the Midwest, 14 percent in the Northeast and 8 percent in the West. (Poverty rates for rural blacks are 44 percent, as opposed to 33 percent for urban blacks; the poorest of the poor are black single women with children living in the South.)

"I would say that 85 percent of the people around here live in poverty," says Buford Graves, director of the Five County Head Start Program in south-central Mississippi. "Of course, that doesn't mean they don't have jobs, but a job around here might pay anywhere from $5 to $8 an hour, just enough to keep you from getting assistance." As Graves suggests, the root of the problem is unemployment and underemployment. …

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