PRESIDENT Clinton today shifts the focus of the national debate on welfare to rural residents who, by some measures, have the distinction of being the poorest of America's poor.
The president, rural leaders, farmers, and social workers gather for the one-day National Rural Conference in Ames, Iowa -- the culmination of a series of conferences organized by the Clinton administration -- to consider how to mobilize technology, schools, tax policy, and government aid to enliven the nation's countryside.
The need here is great and, until now, has received little attention.
The debate over the poor and welfare typically evokes images of single mothers living in urban ghettos and homeless panhandlers in the city parks. But statistics show that poverty rate is highest in rural areas. And improving the situation is made more difficult by a relative lack of publicity and political clout, few job and education opportunities, and underuse of government-aid programs available to the rural needy.
Poverty is not just urban
''We think of poverty as being an urban problem, but in many places the percentages of people in poverty are comparable -- if not greater than -- in non-metro areas,'' says Jeff Crump, a professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb, Ill.
The United States Census Bureau shows that 17.3 percent of all residents in the countryside live in poverty, compared with 14.6 percent poverty rate among urban residents.
The rural poor are especially relevant to the welfare debate, too, because statistics also show that having a full-time, low-wage job does not ensure adequate food or shelter.
A bigger chunk of the rural poor has jobs than the urban poor. In the countryside, 65 percent of the poor live in families with one or more working members. In the city, 54 percent of the needy live in such families, says Moises Loza, executive director of the Housing Assistance Council in Washington, D.C.
Such figures cast doubt on the many welfare-reform measures that seek to move people from public aid to employment based on the assumption that a job will buoy a worker's family above poverty.
Experts say the Clinton administration should consider helping the rural poor in several ways:
r Publicize the Earned Income Tax Credit. Many citizens in rural areas live far from public-aid officials and do not know they qualify for this credit, which low-income workers can put toward social security taxes. If the credit exceeds their social security taxes, the government gives them a check for the difference. Those with incomes up to $26,000 may receive the credit.
r Kindle broad economic growth. Through incentives for investment, stepped-up lending, and improvement in roads, bridges, and other vital public works, the government could invigorate the rural economy and help the poor there to satisfy their relatively high desire to find work and be self-sufficient.
r Promote rural entrepreneurship while providing education in promising, foward-looking professions. Government could advance education in technical fields, seeking to match curricula with skills required in growing industries. Meanwhile, officials could nurture entrepreneurship and povide incentives for rural entrepreneurs to remain in their native areas and resist the longstanding allure of cities.
r Offer rural residents access to advanced telecommunications. The government could encourage the growth of service jobs for rural residents by extending information-grid technology to the countryside.
But wiring rural areas isn't an employment panacea. ''The down- side is that some of those jobs tend to be fairly low pay,'' says Gene Summers, a professor at the Univeristy of Wisconsin. Telecommunications ''can link in remote towns but also make them places where you can get our own version of offshore, third-world cheap labor,'' says Mr. Summers, chairman of the Rural Sociological Society's rural poverty task force.
Out of sight, out of mind
The political weakness of the rural poor makes it unusually difficult to build a consensus behind aid to the countryside, the experts say. Unlike the urban poor, the countryside's needy residents are widely dispersed. As a result, they lack political cohesion and unity.
''The fact that in rural areas they are dispersed makes it even more difficult for them to have any real clout,'' says Mr. Loza.
Rural poor often cannot command as much public sympathy as their urban counterparts because they are largely overlooked by the nation's urban-based media. And rather than walking city streets among prosperous Americans, the rural poor remain out of view in remote mountains or dry wastelands.