When I was finishing up my graduate degree in Kansas City, I volunteered on overdrive because I wanted to get greater perspective about what activities get real results for populations experiencing poverty. As a teacher of urban extra-curricular programs I already knew a bit about what life looked like for people living in poverty.
When my family moved to the Missouri Ozarks, I was shocked to see the degree of poverty that is being experienced by people who live there. Poverty in that particular rural area exhibited a different look and feel than urban poverty, but many of the same symptoms were shared:
Prevalent Teen Pregnancy
Prevalent Drug Use
Low Educational Attainment
Fresh Food Access
Disproportionate Earnings vs. Cost of Living
Raw Per-Capita Poverty Rate
The Burden Of Proof
As a rural CASA director, my job took me into the darkest depths of dwellings as I delivered CASA programming across a four-county jurisdiction that was at the top of the list of Missouri’s poorest judicial districts. Not only was I required to get up close and personal with households, I studied personal files which documented the truths about what life was really like for the poorest rural families.
When it was time to request grant funding, I noticed that there was a general lack of understanding about poverty in rural areas from urban-located government agencies and philanthropic foundations. The people leading improvement efforts from cities simply weren’t able to visualize how bad it can get in the country. They had only seen firsthand evidence of poverty in the city, so the assumption was that what they haven’t seen couldn’t be as bad as what they have seen.
I had to “show the bad” to get good giving to come back. My strategy was to show some telling numbers, explain what they mean, and then tell real stories to convince the city folk that those numbers reflected reality.
The following table shows what I found. Whereas poverty in Jackson County also needs work, here’s how it compared to poverty in the judicial district where I worked, where just over 79,000 people live.
Most notably, I had to explain the significance of median income vs. cost of living (i.e. the numbers in red). Imagine yourself in this scenario: If you had a job where you could make ends meet, and then you moved to an area where the jobs paid 40% less, everything would be fine as long as the cost of living was 40% less too. But what would happen to your life if the cost of living only went down by 25%? Your previously fine lifestyle would cost 15% more than what you can really afford.
One thing that cost of living indices don’t reflect is that people in poor rural areas still participate in the regional and national economy via grocery stores, big box stores and internet retail. Measured as a portion of their income, they pay much more for items purchased by comparable customers in urban areas. What that essentially means is that they end up with even less disposable income. That directly impacts quality of life.
Why You Should Care
Poverty, wherever it is, impacts economies, the psycho-social health of children, and the future of societies at local, regional and national levels.
People living in rural areas play just as important a role in our national economy as people living in urban areas. As we see with urban residents struggling with poverty, not having enough to live on transforms life into one filled with survival attempts. Tasks that fulfill life’s basic responsibilities become much more difficult when a person is easily distracted due to hunger-induced low blood sugar or untreated chronic illness.
People who are merely surviving don’t have the time or energy to participate in larger issues that are significant to humanity. This can impact life within the home, affecting the futures of children present, rippling out to affect the neighborhoods, communities and cities where those children will grow up to inhabit. This is one factor which is no different from the rural poverty experience.
The most important reason you should care about rural and urban poverty equally and help the cause to bridge the action gap is this: Poverty is proportionally more prevalent in rural areas. The more our philanthropic community focuses only on poverty within an urban service area, the more separated rural communities will feel from urban areas, where not only do social problems receive private dollars, but public solutions to social problems are appropriately accessible to those suffering them. Unless we want the rural-urban divide to widen, philanthropy needs to play a more present role in counteracting persistent rural poverty.