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The poverty we forget


I'm participating in the worldwide Blog Action Day focusing on the issue of poverty. It's easy to be cynical about these kinds of online efforts, but I choose not to be. Collectively directing our attention to the issue of poverty, even for a day, can encourage us to work together to assist those who need help and address the root causes of the problem.

Today I'm focusing on the poverty I know and best understand: rural poverty in America. Millions of children in the wealthiest country on earth will go to bed hungry tonight, including children whose names I know, living in my neighborhood.

When we think of poverty in America, we often conjure up images of blighted urban areas and neighborhoods racked by drugs, gang violence, and rampant unemployment. These images are real, of course, but they don't tell the whole story of what poverty in America really looks like. A few facts:

  • 340 of the 386 (88%) Persistently Poor Counties are rural.
  • 18% of rural counties are persistent poverty counties, versus only 4% of urban counties. The non-urban South, with over 40 percent of the U.S. rural population, has a significantly higher incidence of poverty.
  • 82% of the rural persistently poor counties are in the South.

Persistent Poverty Counties are those that have had poverty rates of 20% or higher in every decennial census between 1970 and 2000.

I grew up in a single-parent family on the margins of poverty in small-town rural Indiana. Few of my friends went to college; most graduated or left school early to work in the factories or on the farms surrounding our town. When those factories closed, hundreds of people I grew up with - now with children of their own - were thrown out of work and forced to scramble for minimum-wage jobs, often working two or three at a time. Today my home town looks like a bombed out version of the one I remember as a child. Those old jobs aren't coming back, and that little town will likely never recover. But the people are still there, and they struggle to make ends meet every day.

If you'd like to know more about the issue of rural poverty in America, including a fresh look at effective antipoverty policies that have been proven to work, I recommend this document (PDF format) published by the Rural Poverty Research Center. It contains several articles that explore the basic assumptions behind the causes of rural poverty, and it calls for a new direction in philanthropy that recognizes the critical roles race, class, and power play in perpetuating rural poverty.