istening to the Voices of the Rural Poor
By Randy Weckman
Poor people. Children in poverty. The images conjured up by each of these phrases today most often have an urban, housing project complexion. Yet, much of the poverty in the United States is not urban, inner city poverty, but
rural, wide-open-spaces poverty and small town poverty. Regardless of locale, poverty constitutes human potential unfulfilled.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, commonly dubbed welfare reform, made sweeping changes in the federal governments role in supporting low-income families. It ended cash assistance as an entitlement, imposed time limits and work requirements on poor people, and gave states greater domain in welfare policy. And as the name implies, it put the onus on poor families to figure out how to end their dependence on welfare.
Nearly all discussions leading to welfare reform centered on the urban poor. And while the outcome of being poor in an urban situation and a rural situation may be similar, the opportunities for bootstrapping oneself out of poverty may be quite different.
How are rural families with young children dealing with the end of welfare as we know it, a common descriptor of the legislation? According to a study by Tricia Dyk, a sociologist in the Department of Community and Leadership Development, theyre having problems that are uniquely rural in nature.
In our study we asked poor Kentucky mothers to tell us in their own words what their lives are like after welfare reform, said Dyk.
Because they are telling us their story, we can understand the strategies they use in dealing with poverty every day, she said.
The mothers weve interviewed arent welfare queens of popular myth. Two-thirds of them or their husbands had worked sometime during the last year. Nonetheless, the barriers for bootstrapping themselves permanently out of poverty are formidable, Dyk said.
These families dont want to continue drawing a check, as the saying goes, but they face difficult challenges not only in finding a job but in being able to retain it because of many things most of us take for granted, she said.
Jobs in rural areas are scarce, and when a job is available, it is twice as likely as an urban job to pay minimum wage and have no benefits, Dyk said. It may be very difficult if not impossible to sustain a family on minimum wages, especially when benefits are meager, she said.
The lack of reliable transportation is a major barrier for many of these people, she said.
Because getting to a job in a rural area usually requires some travel, you may have a hard time keeping a job if you don't have a car or your car is undependable. Some moms are coping by having a member of an extended family help out with transportation to and from a job, Dyk said.
Child care is another major obstacle for many. Child care is expensive in urban areas, too, but at least it is more readily available. In rural areas, reliable child care may be quite distant from ones home, she said.
Again, the extended family often helps out with child care while parents work, Dyk said.
So, okay, if jobs in rural areas are scarce and barriers to working substantial, why don't the rural poor move to urban areas where jobs, public transportation, and child care are more available?
Historically, many rural poor have migrated to the cities, Dyk said. The low-income moms we interviewed, in addition to being very dependent on extended family members to keep their own families intact, often have responsibilities to other family members that preclude them from even thinking about leaving the rural area for the city, she said.
Oddly, living in poverty hadnt particularly embittered the low-income moms.
These people are resilient and resourceful in their own ways in dealing with the unexpectedness of their lives. They tend to be very good at living poor, Dyk said.
Take Laurie, a 22-year-old mother of two, who said one technique she uses to get through to the end of the month is pawning.
I pawn stuff all the time. I pawned my ring the other day to buy diapers. I pawn things telling myself I'll get them back. But then I never do.
Laurie (not her real name) takes care of two small children while her husband works any odd jobs he can procure. Laurie believes she is ineligible for child care assistance because she and her husband live together. Because money is so tight, she relies on washing clothes in the bathtub rather than spending money at the laundry.
By knowing just how families like Lauries are coping, we can better anticipate the needs our rural poor have in getting out of poverty and staying there, Dyk said. Just because they are no longer on welfare rolls doesn't mean their income is sufficient to move beyond poverty, she said.
||Tricia Dyk, a sociologist in the Department of Community and Leadership Development, has talked with low-income Kentucky women about how theyve fared since welfare reform began.
About Kentucky Children Living in Poverty
Child poverty in Kentucky is substantial, with some locales having higher rates of child poverty than others. Poverty rates for children (defined as those under age 18) range from 6.8 percent in Boone County to more than 56 percent in Owsley County. Twenty-five Kentucky counties have more than one in three children living in poverty; all of these are rural counties. Overall, Kentucky ranked seventh in the nation in 1999 in the number of children living in povertymore than 200,000.
Owsley, Wolfe, Clay, Magoffin, and Martin countiesall rural counties located in Eastern Kentuckyare among those counties in the nation with the highest rate of children in poverty, ranging from 45.4 percent in Martin County to 56.4 percent in Owsley County. (In the national list of 38 counties with the highest rates of children in poverty, only oneHidalgo County in Texasis considered an urban county; the remaining 37 are rural.)
Childhood poverty isnt always the result of family members not working. In fact, two-thirds of poor families with children in Kentucky have at least one household member who works at least part of the year10 months per year on averageand nearly 25 percent of them work full-time. Less than 20 percent of poor families with children rely on welfare for the bulk of their income.
Leaving welfare rolls does not necessarily mean that a family with children also leaves poverty. In fact, the statistics indicate that nearly 60 percent of families leaving the welfare rolls continued to live in poverty despite family members work.
Sources: the College's Social 'N Agricultural Resource Library (www.ca.uky.edu/snarl), Kentucky Youth Advocates (www.kyyouth.org), and the Children's Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org). Visit these Web sites for more information about children in poverty.