Main Street of Luray, Missouri, used to be U.S. 136. The highway now bypasses the town.

[imgcontainer] [img:Luray-MO530.jpg] [source]Timothy Collins[/source] Main Street of Luray, Missouri, used to be U.S. 136. The highway now bypasses the town. [/imgcontainer]

Just how full is rural America’s cup? Or, how empty is it? Or can it be emptying and filling at the same time?

It’s good to hear that the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Main Street Economist has declared that rural America experienced a rebound in 2010 because of rising farm income and improved farm commodity and manufacturing exports. The numbers indicate that rural America’s cup is filling and should continue to do so in 2011, helping to lead the nation out of its worst recession since the Great Depression.

This curious recession will be studied for years because of the mixed signals from experts throughout its evolution. It began in denial. Now that it’s “officially” over, there seems to be a sense that all is well across our rural heartland. Things weren’t that bad, at least for some.

One historic aspect of this recession – which grinds on for all too many people – is that its urban origins spilled over into rural areas. And, while the recovery may be starting, any euphoria should be measured. Lingering effects of this recession will be felt in rural areas for years to come, just as they were after the 1980s Farm Crisis.

Here is evidence that the rural cup is emptying:

•    As Bill Bishop reported in the Daily Yonder (December 27, 2010), rural poverty rates are higher than in urban or exurban counties (as usual). Poverty has increased during the recession, but there are large regional differences. The South generally and the Appalachians continue to have the highest rates of poverty. In 2009, the poverty rate in rural America was 17.26%, according to the Yonder’s analysis of Census Bureau data. The rate in exurban counties was 13.3%. In urban counties, the rate was 13.9%.  The national poverty rate in 2009 was estimated at between 14.3% to 15.7%, depending on the measure used.

•    Last fall, the Carsey Institute reported that rural poverty for children had increased to 29% between 2007 and 2009. Of the 5.7 million impoverished children under age 6, over a million live in rural America. That translates to more than 25% of our youngest rural children living in poverty in 2009. All regions of the country saw significant increases in rural child poverty, but both the rural and urban Midwest saw larger increases than other regions.

Poverty is corrosive. It is bad enough for adults, who suffer from the stigma of moral failure and the depression that comes from not having the resources to take advantage of opportunities. Though prejudice against poor adults is widespread, poverty is not usually people’s fault.

Unfortunately, poverty in this country is systemic, related to family background, access to income and wealth, education, racial and geographic discrimination, and a host of other factors. 

Current poverty levels are bad, but they are far below what they were before and during the Great Depression. With hard work – and investment — by the government and private sectors, national poverty levels fell dramatically in the 1960s and early 1970s for much of the country.

Poverty, could be eradicated, but instead it has been stubbornly persistent for decades, even though at lower rates. The country’s political economy has not provided enough opportunities to overcome the intrinsic disadvantages of the intergenerational poor and of workers displaced by the massive economic readjustments that have occurred since the mid 1970s. The current economic cancer has hurt many, but not all, rural areas. It has especially damaged entrenched poverty pockets; these are places with the highest poverty levels in at least two decades.

So far in this economic cycle, we have seen only limited job creation. Time will tell how fast the recovery will occur, where it will occur, and who will benefit. Creating jobs is certainly important for adults and their families. But there is a nagging, far more poignant question: What about the children?

[imgcontainer right] [img:sad-child320.jpg] [source]Little White Cat[/source] Poverty among rural children increased to 29% between 2007 and 2009, according to the Carsey Institute. [/imgcontainer]

Ample research shows that poor children are likely to face psychological, social, and economic challenges for the rest of their lives. Recent research published in the journal Psychological Science shows
that children rasied in poor families have fallen behind their peers by
as early age two. If you add rural geographic discrimination and minority status (although most rural poor children are white), the barriers to a higher quality of adult life for these young people grow even more formidable. Poverty perpetuates itself.

Children who grow up in families with limited or no economic opportunities face a state of uncertainty at home and in their schools and social activities. Undernourished children have an inordinate number of health problems. They may come from backgrounds where their parents are undereducated, so they may be unprepared for school. Even if they are prepared for school, it is impossible for them to learn because they are undernourished and under stress.

Whatever prejudice people may bear against poor adults, their poverty is seldom their fault alone. They were born into it or thrust into it. The communities where they were born may already have been poor. Or the loss of industry and other jobs may have thrown them out of work for an extended period. These things are out of their control.

As Congress and state legislatures consider their budgets during this third year of the recession, there has been plenty of talk about cutting social programs as wasteful and creating a dependent population. This makes good rhetoric for demagogues, but is incredibly cruel and shortsighted. If we punish adults for their poverty and inability to find decent work, we are also punishing their children and risking their – and our nation’s – future.

Moving toward a rural recovery is great. But it must be truly widespread. We cannot build a better future for coming generations without providing security for all children now. This is something we have known for generations. Yet many policy leaders seem unable or unwilling to recognize it in our present political and economic environment, which has been turbulent at best and vicious at worst.

Poor children have been the innocent victims of this economic plunge. They will bear the scars of this experience for the rest of their lives.  For them, the cup of opportunity may be destroyed forever. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

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