America’s Forgotten PoorEssays, Social Justice — By Stephen Mattson on July 17, 2012 at 6:10 am
The words “poverty” and “homeless” often evoke the stereotypical images of a disheveled man (wearing six different layers of clothing) holding up a cardboard sign at a busy intersection, a drunk bum harassing tourists for “bus fare money,” unemployment lines, and soup kitchens. In cities all over the United States, poverty is rampant, and many of these examples are experienced on a daily basis. But the ideas, images, and solutions for combating poverty are extremely city-centric, when in reality, poverty rates are worse in rural communities.
This is hard for many to comprehend. Rural America is supposed to be full of hard-working prosperous middle to upper class white citizens living in close-knit towns with low crime rates, 4-H Clubs, Fourth of July Parades, expensive tractors, and pristine fields overflowing with bountiful crops.
But when various media outlets highlight government subsidies and the recent Bakken oil boom in the upper Midwest (Yes, we know that North Dakota has one of the lowest unemployment rates!) as examples of how living in rural America is now more lucrative than ever, recent data suggests otherwise. According to 2009 census statistics (the most recent available), rural areas have a 17% national poverty rate, 3 percentage points higher than urban areas. To make matters worse, rural poverty is exceptionally harsh in the South, where extreme poverty is rampant and many areas have a poverty rate that exceeds 50%.
In these areas, shantytowns and ramshackle slums are more reminiscent of a third-world war-stricken country, not the heartland of the United States. To make matters worse, child poverty is much more severe and rampant in non-metro areas, with many Southern states having rural child poverty rates that exceed 25%. Researchers are also finding that generally, rural poverty is becoming increasingly worse than urban poverty when comparing “poverty standards,” with many rural families surviving on less than half of what is considered a “normal” poverty level. As far as income inequality is concerned, no demographic segment in the United States is faring worse than the rural poor.
They don’t have soup kitchens, public transportation, neighborhood unemployment offices, nearby social services, or accessible homeless shelters. Community centers don’t exist for at-risk youth, and few public health options are available. There are no Hollywood stars representing their cause and no trendy video memes illustrating their struggles. Social networks are silent on the issue. They are invisible to the general public, and the Social Justice movement has largely forgotten about this unique segment of the world’s poor (publicity is not one of the rural community’s strengths).
The rural poor lack a distinct public identity. Few organizations are dedicated to the cause, and if you Google “America’s Rural Poor,” or anything related to it, you’ll only find a few good resources, most of which are academic studies only available in PDF formats. The rural poverty problem is unromantic, with no distinct heros or villains or cause célébre. There’s nothing remarkable or distinct for the public to grasp, so the cause becomes lost and ignored.
Not only do the rural poor have few advocates, but they can’t simply step outside, hold up a sign, and voice their concerns to thousands of people (unlike those living in cities). The large geographic areas and hundreds of miles of separation make organizing and facilitating logistical support difficult and inefficient.
As urban centers—and the large voting constituents that they represent—become increasingly lucrative to government policymakers and politicians, legislation and social welfare programs are also becoming more “urbanized,” and rural problems are given less of a priority. Likewise, big corporations—along with their better compensation packages and health benefits— are relocating and building in cities. As these trends continue, the better jobs, education options and general standard of living is shifting towards cities and away from rural environments.
Many poor rural families are also white and don’t fit into what the preconceptions of “the poor and underprivileged” are supposed to look like. This makes soliciting help hard for a population traditionally viewed as privileged, wealthy, racist, and domineering, and they often find little empathy. The hard truth is that it’s much easier to entice people to help a malnourished child living in Sudan than a malnourished Caucasian child living in Colorado.
Historically, churches and non-profit groups have spent great amounts of time, energy, and money by focusing on the city (and third-world countries). They plan mission trips into the worst neighborhoods, start homeless shelters, and volunteer in soup kitchens. We shouldn’t stop doing this, but our paradigm must evolve so that our focus includes rural communities, where millions of our nation’s poor actually live.
Byline: Stephen Mattson is a contributing writer for the Burnside Writers Collective, Neue Quarterly, Neueministry.com, soccerplus.net, and theheaderonline. He currently resides in St. Paul, MN and religiously believes that Arsenal is the greatest sports team in the entire universe (throughout all eternity).