The Ends Rarely Meet in Rural America

Some of the nation's most destitute, the rural poor lack skills for new jobs, receive little government support.

BEFORE daybreak Tony Smith bursts from his shoe-box house and seems to be halfway to his factory job before the screen door closes with a slam.

At dusk, though, when Mr. Smith leaves the cheese factory, he has lost his kick. He trudges home to his wife and five children in Pittsfield's soggy lowlands with a feeling that, despite overtime, he is poorer than when the day began.

Smith earns more than the minimum wage, but like more than 3 million other rural workers, he has not been able to lift his family out of poverty. In the past decade, Smith and other low-income workers in the countryside have seen their incomes fall more than any other broad category of workers.

''There's no way we can cut it on the $5.10 an hour Tony gets at the factory. We need twice that,'' says Lisa Smith, his wife.

While the real median income for families in metropolitan areas rose 1 percent from 1983 to 1993, families living outside metropolitan regions saw their median incomes fall 3.2 percent over the same period, according to Census Bureau statistics.

The rural working poor are by some measures the most destitute Americans. Often lacking in skills, they have lost jobs to new technology and low-cost labor abroad. When compared to the highly concentrated and visible urban poor, they receive little political, popular, or bureaucratic support.

Government aids farmers

Moreover, the agencies in Washington that focus on rural issues have long tended to favor agricultural interests even though the majority of rural residents work at jobs unrelated to agriculture, experts say. Also, new initiatives aimed at reversing the decline of the rural poor are unlikely in this era of fiscal cutbacks.

''The rural poor don't make it on the political agenda because they are very much outnumbered by urban poor,'' says John van Es, director of the Laboratory for Community and Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

''When politicians discuss poverty, welfare reform, work programs and so forth, they focus on urban areas because that is where the very large numbers of people are,'' Mr. van Es says.

Popular myth also erodes the political base of the rural poor. Many metropolitan voters still believe agriculture employs most workers in the countryside, and that aid to farms means aid to all rural Americans.

But in terms of employment, farmers fell from dominance in the countryside decades ago. Only 8.5 percent of rural jobs involve farms or businesses tied to agriculture.

The vast majority of rural workers labor in services (50.6 percent), government (17.2 percent), or manufacturing (16.9 percent), according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Nevertheless, because farmers remain the dominant political force in the countryside the USDA, the federal department charged with focusing primarily on rural America, tends to promote agricultural interests foremost. And, rural poverty experts say, the agency tends to overlook the needs of rural residents employed outside of agriculture.

Although agriculture has not been the leading employer in the countryside for decades, agricultural interests still shape the framework and outcome for rural policy, says Gene Summers, professor of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The farm lobby ''supports nonagricultural interests, including low-income people, so long as they do not threaten its dominant position within Congress and USDA,'' says Mr. Summers, chairman of the Rural Sociological Society's rural poverty task force.

Indeed, USDA Secretary Dan Glickman at a public forum on April 24 in Edwardsville, Ill., emphasized that the promotion of agricultural interests is the department's main reason for being.

Secretary Glickman told young farmers, ''If you can't make it, there's no reason to keep a Department of Agriculture any longer.'' He concluded the conference by championing farmers: ''We've got to help the winners continue to win, and that is the purpose of the Department of Agriculture.''

But Glickman said later at a press conference that the assertion that USDA favors farmers and disregards the rural poor is ''not a complete and fair analysis.''

Most notably, the department has ''made a special effort to ensure outreach for food stamps in rural areas, in fact the largest growth in recent years has occurred in the Food Stamp Program in rural areas,'' Glickman said.

But USDA statistics indicate otherwise: From 1989 until 1993 the share of the rural poor in food stamp benefits, the department's biggest anti-poverty initiative, fell from 28 percent to 22.1 percent, according to the USDA's Food and Consumer Service.

New federal support

The Clinton administration has advanced some aid projects for the rural poor. Most notably, it has launched a $208 million program in federal aid, tax-exempt facility bonds, and tax incentives for three Rural Empowerment Zones and 30 Rural Enterprise Communities.

But the projects may not be big enough to eliminate ''pockets of poverty'' involving more than 700 rural counties, experts say. Federal budget-cutting limits the prospects for new large-scale programs for the countryside's needy residents.

Consequently, Smith and other rural workers have fewer job and education opportunities and lower wages for the same work as their metropolitan counterparts. And they must still cope with the downward pressure on pay caused by new technology and expanded trade.

Like many of his peers, Smith lost a well-paying job when the Brown Shoe Company, citing foreign competition, closed its factory in Pittsfield in 1984. His current job pays 42 percent less, or an annual salary of about $11,000.

The Smiths receive about $4,000 worth of public aid each year. That gives them an annual income well below the $22,824 federal poverty line for a family of seven.

''My philosophy on life is that everyone who wants to cut public aid should have to live on public aid for one year,'' says Mrs. Smith from a sagging, blackened easy chair. ''Then they would see the problem is not people sitting on their butts not wanting to work,'' she says as two of her children play in sunlight darkened by plastic sheeting covering the window frames.

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