Spotlight Exclusives

Rural Children Isolated in Chronically Poor Communities

Mil Duncan, University of New Hampshire Mil Duncan, University of New Hampshire, posted on

Children growing up in poor families in poor places face a lifetime of struggle. I have seen children in Appalachian hollows and poor neighborhoods in the Mississippi Delta trapped in struggling families. They attend ineffective schools and prospects in their job-scarce communities are bleak. They will inherit their parents۪ poverty unless we make early childhood investments to give them the skills to get ahead, and help their parents achieve some stability to support their children.

My 1999 book Worlds Apart chronicled my research examining why rural poverty persists, based on hundreds of interviews in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, and northern New England. In 2013 I returned. A new edition of Worlds Apart describes how the communities have changed and how the poor fare now.

In the 1990s the Appalachian coal and Delta plantation communities were starkly divided into the haves and have-nots. They attended different schools and different churches. Poor children grew up “rough,” worlds apart from the haves.

A few families controlled the jobs and politics; distrust and corruption undermined community institutions and blocked reform. The disadvantaged dropped out, had children young and out of wedlock, and, like their parents, faced a lifetime of “scratching” to make ends meet.

In contrast, in the more prosperous New England mill community, a blue-collar middle class invested in community-wide institutions. Everyone played hockey or participated in scouts together. Poor children were not isolated and had a chance to leave poverty behind.

Two decades later, those differences have shaped how the three communities navigated economic changes sweeping across rural America.

In 2013, poverty was still high and jobs were still scarce in the Appalachian community. The coal industry was down sharply. One-third of families had no worker. Many relied on disability payments. Painkiller addiction ravaged the community. The same families ran things. Many young adults had left, and those who stayed hunkered down with family, struggling to make ends meet. The legacy of disinvestment and vulnerability persisted.

Casinos came to the Delta community fifteen years ago, bringing jobs in kitchens and hotels as well as at poker tables. The new jobs, along with substantial Earned Income Tax Credit participation, reduced the poverty rate from 60 percent to 30 percent by 2010.

The casinos broke the plantation owners۪ stranglehold over jobs, and thus over politics, and in 2012, this black-majority county elected an African American board of supervisors determined to invest in poor neighborhoods. But today casino jobs and revenue are down. Public schools continue to struggle to educate poor black students while whites attend private schools. Here too, despite political change and a boost from casinos, the legacy of deep poverty, segregation, and deprivation weighs heavily.

The northern community grappled with the loss of good mill jobs and now relies on prisons, a biofuel plant, and ATV and snowmobile trails. Rents fell after the mills closed and new poor families moved in, alarming long-time residents. “Those people aren۪t welcome here,” some said.

But the community worked together to improve deteriorating neighborhoods. Community leaders still value education, and the schools try to support the vulnerable newcomers.
The former mill community, its institutions resilient, is adjusting to a new, less prosperous economy. But what can be done in places like the Appalachian and Delta communities where poverty remains high and critical community institutions are broken?

Fundamental social and political conditions rooted in economic history undermine development efforts and perpetuate poverty in these communities. Building opportunity is hard.

But we have proven programs that invest in poor children۪s successful future. Every poor child deserves those investments.

In Appalachia, Gwen, who dropped out and “ran wild” as a teen, was a thirty-year-old mother struggling to raise three kids in the 1990s. She invested in them, coaching on schoolwork, supporting them even as the family “scrounged” day after day. Despite a rocky marriage and little money, she created a stable family. Twenty years later her children were working and their own kids were thriving. But her ability to invest is the exception.

In the Delta in the 1990s, with no institutional support, black organizers mentored poor disconnected youth, guiding kids whose families and schools were chaotic and even violent.  Twenty years later those they mentored were prepared to take the new jobs and establish stable families. But there were many they could not reach.

Rigorous research shows that good two-generation programs help fragile families do what Gwen did on her own. Home visiting and quality early childhood education provide the cognitive and social skills children need to succeed, even when parents struggle with poverty or addiction.

When stressed parents can get mental health and substance abuse services, parenting guidance, and, importantly, adequate income, they can create family stability. And solid mentoring programs can bring to scale what those organizers accomplished in the Delta, helping young people stay on track, finish school, and get work.

Growing up poor in a poor community sets children on the path to repeating their parents۪ lives of “scratching.”  My research shows the power of individual parents and mentors. But it takes more than heroic individuals to break the cycle of poverty. We need strong federal and state investment in poor children.

Over 8 million are poor in rural America, and they have too long been invisible and forgotten. While we cannot build a strong, inclusive economy in every remote community, we can invest in children to build their life chances.

To print a PDF of this document, click here.

Mil Duncan is professor emeritus at University of New Hampshire where she served as the founding director of the Carsey Institute, and works with AGree, a food and agriculture policy initiative. Her new edition of Worlds Apart: Poverty and Politics in Rural America is now available.

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