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Small Towns, Fresh Air And Lots Of Poor People

Economic Trends


To many Americans, poverty is mainly a big-city problem associated with the welfare dependency, family breakdown, street violence, and drug use that plague the nation's inner cities. Yet as a recent report by a task force of the Rural Sociological Society observes, persistent poverty is as great a problem in nonurban areas as in cities--and by some measures, it is even more severe.

Although rural areas now contain less than a fourth of the population, they account for some 27% of the poor. As of 1990, their poverty rate of 16.3% was almost double that of suburban areas and not far below the 19% of central cities, which contain a much greater percentage of poor, female-headed families. Indeed, among subgroups such as married-couple families, people living alone or with unrelated persons, blacks, and the aged, rural poverty is not only more prevalent than in urban areas (which include both cities and suburbs) but also more prevalent than in central cities.

The economy has not been kind to rural America in the past decade. In the early postwar period, job losses caused by modernization of such primary industries as agriculture, forestry, and mining spurred many workers to seek work in urban areas. Although conditions improved in the late 1960s and early 1970s as light manufacturing and service industries moved out of the cities, rural economies were battered again in the '80s by the problems besetting mining and agriculture and a heavy loss of manufacturing jobs.

In some ways, the plight of the rural poor seems more intractable than that of their urban cousins. They are more likely to be poor over long periods of time. And they are less likely to be served by antipoverty programs, such as preschool for poor children.

But in other ways, the rural poor may be potentially more responsive to steps to improve their lot. For one thing, fewer of them behave in ways that social observers associate with an entrenched "culture of poverty." A lower percentage are dependent on welfare, for example, and more of them represent intact married-couple families (44% in 1990, vs. 27% in inner cities). Perhaps most important, nearly two-thirds of the rural poor have at least one family member who works, compared with 54% in urban areas.

To the experts, such differences suggest that encouraging people to move to areas that appear to offer more employment opportunities may not always be the optimal strategy to alleviate rural poverty. Regional development programs promoting small-scale manufacturing, for example, could capitalize on the strengths of rural society while lifting rural residents out of poverty.GENE KORETZ

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