Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Ends Rarely Meet in Rural America Some of the Nation's Most Destitute, the Rural Poor Lack Skills for New Jobs, Receive Little Government Support

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Ends Rarely Meet in Rural America Some of the Nation's Most Destitute, the Rural Poor Lack Skills for New Jobs, Receive Little Government Support

Article excerpt

BEFORE daybreak Tony Smith bursts from his shoe-box house and seems to be halfway to his factory job before the screen door closes with a slam.

At dusk, though, when Mr. Smith leaves the cheese factory, he has lost his kick. He trudges home to his wife and five children in Pittsfield's soggy lowlands with a feeling that, despite overtime, he is poorer than when the day began.

Smith earns more than the minimum wage, but like more than 3 million other rural workers, he has not been able to lift his family out of poverty. In the past decade, Smith and other low-income workers in the countryside have seen their incomes fall more than any other broad category of workers.

"There's no way we can cut it on the $5.10 an hour Tony gets at the factory. We need twice that," says Lisa Smith, his wife.

While the real median income for families in metropolitan areas rose 1 percent from 1983 to 1993, families living outside metropolitan regions saw their median incomes fall 3.2 percent over the same period, according to Census Bureau statistics.

The rural working poor are by some measures the most destitute Americans. Often lacking in skills, they have lost jobs to new technology and low-cost labor abroad. When compared to the highly concentrated and visible urban poor, they receive little political, popular, or bureaucratic support.

Government aids farmers

Moreover, the agencies in Washington that focus on rural issues have long tended to favor agricultural interests even though the majority of rural residents work at jobs unrelated to agriculture, experts say. Also, new initiatives aimed at reversing the decline of the rural poor are unlikely in this era of fiscal cutbacks.

"The rural poor don't make it on the political agenda because they are very much outnumbered by urban poor," says John van Es, director of the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"When politicians discuss poverty, welfare reform, work programs and so forth, they focus on urban areas because that is where the very large numbers of people are," Mr. van Es says.

Popular myth also erodes the political base of the rural poor. Many metropolitan voters still believe agriculture employs most workers in the countryside, and that aid to farms means aid to all rural Americans.

But in terms of employment, farmers fell from dominance in the countryside decades ago. Only 8.5 percent of rural jobs involve farms or businesses tied to agriculture.

The vast majority of rural workers labor in services (50.6 percent), government (17.2 percent), or manufacturing (16.9 percent), according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Nevertheless, because farmers remain the dominant political force in the countryside the USDA, the federal department charged with focusing primarily on rural America, tends to promote agricultural interests foremost. And, rural poverty experts say, the agency tends to overlook the needs of rural residents employed outside of agriculture.

Although agriculture has not been the leading employer in the countryside for decades, agricultural interests still shape the framework and outcome for rural policy, says Gene Summers, professor of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.