Shortchanging rural America
The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation funds organizations in the South working to move people and places out of poverty. The foundation recently launched a "Southern Voices" oral history project to capture the stories of Southern leaders working for social and economic justice. The latest installment features stories about the lack of public and private support for impoverished communities in the rural South. For more stories from the project, click here. (Disclosure: The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation is a funder of the Institute for Southern Studies.)
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Rural America has a greater need for investment but is getting less of it, according to two new reports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One analysis found more than one in four rural children lives in poverty. That number jumps to one in three or higher across much of the South, where manufacturing boomed in the 1990s but plummeted during the severe recession that began in 2007. The decline of the manufacturing sector wiped out jobs with living wages and tax revenue to fund infrastructure needs. Many municipalities find themselves stretched so thin, they're forced to cut basic services.
People who battle inequality in the rural South are witnessing these economic trends and their impacts on struggling families. Federation of Child Care Centers of Alabama Executive Director Sophia Bracy Harris says the squeeze on public funding perpetuates the cycle of poverty. "Poor communities, low income, disenfranchised communities, particularly rural communities, people of color, where the concentration of people of color, really get the poorest, the smallest amount of funds coming out of the system. So there is no way for people to pull themselves out of poverty when you have a system that really poorly educates the citizenry. Those are the same communities that lack economic development. ... So when you combine poor education … the lack of economic opportunities and access to jobs where you can take care of your families, poor systems or nonexistent systems of transportation for basic things such as employment or getting to healthcare facilities, you have created a system that really is compounded by poverty."
Remote parts of Georgia are feeling the same pinch. "This is a high poverty area, not a lot of resources, lack of jobs, infrastructure, housing, opportunities, training. Education is a challenge," said John Littles, executive director of McIntosh SEED. "For the last 20 years, there has not been a significant difference in the government to the people. Basically, local government spends on roads, fire department or fire trucks — so any resource that is not geared toward changing conditions in the communities, job creation, continuing education, just those opportunities for families to have a better way of living."
Aside from the obvious strain on services, shortchanging rural communities causes subtle psychological harm, according to former SWGAP Business Development Specialist Daa'iyah Salaam. "There is infrastructure that we take for granted — roads, access to health care, access to books, a full school week — things that we don't even think about. For some communities, these are very real issues that they have to fight against every day," Salaam said. "There's so much that we have here that we don't value because other people have told us that we don't matter. If you're not in Atlanta, you don't matter. If you're not even in Savannah or Columbus, we don't matter. No one pays attention to us down here, and so we tend to not pay attention to us. In a perfect world, I would see us valuing ourselves, just as much as other communities value themselves."
Not helping conditions in these impoverished areas is the disproportionately small share of philanthropic support they receive. USDA economists analyzed grants from 1,400 of the largest foundations from 2005 to 2010 and concluded just 5.5 to 7.5 percent benefit rural counties, even though 19 percent of Americans live there. Researchers also found rural grantmaking favors counties with already reasonably well-funded nonprofits with the capacity to court foundation support. "This illustrates circularity in the process of community development — funds are needed to develop local capacity, which is needed to raise funds. This type of circularity may be at the root of problems of persistent poverty in some rural areas," wrote the author, John L. Pender.
Why is the philanthropic sector underinvesting in rural? Some speculate it's because urban funding formulas don't work outside of cities. "One funder said, 'What's the number of full-time jobs that you're creating?' And we kept butting our heads against that one because in an urban area, you may be able to create 400 jobs and you have that number, but you don't understand the significance of having maybe 40 part-time jobs and what that means in a rural place that has no industry," said McIntosh SEED Project Manager Cheryl Peterson. "We want funders to understand that there are challenges associated with being in the rural South, and you have to invest differently and you can't use the one-size-fits-all approach. … It may not be the same numbers that you get when you invest in an urban area, but the impact that you're having in the life of the people in those communities is significant and well worth the investment."
And those investments are likely to take longer, says Littles. "A lot of times, programs come in to the rural South and don't invest enough; they don't allow it to develop because of all the underlying conditions that exist, and so they pull out immediately. The talent is already there. It just takes time to shape it; it takes time to nurture it and be consistent with working with those folks, and those folks having access to you on a continuous basis. We understand the investments and they need results, but sometimes there are obstacles that lie ahead before you can get to those results. Once those are addressed and those barriers are removed, then you can address the real issues and bring about the changes that are needed in rural communities. So we ask for longer-term investments, we ask for patience and for investors to come and be a part of those investments and see what they're investing in."
Salaam wants grantmakers to know rural economic development efforts don't lend themselves to a widget-counting mindset. "Funders, because they can't measure and see where their money is going, they have shied away from here, whereas if you're in an urban area, there are more resources, there are more evaluative methods they can use to say, 'Okay, we've served this number of kids and they ate this amount of fresh fruit, or we've done this.'"
She has a straightforward response to anyone who questions the value of rural investment: "Why should we have to ask the question of why we should care about rural people? For the simple fact that rural people are people. Rural America has built the industrialized America, and we tend to forget that, and rural America really mirrors where we're headed, as far as this country. When we don't pay attention to those things, big issues, come up, rise up, and we tend to be caught off guard, when in fact we just haven't paid attention to how they've manifested themselves over the years. So rural America is just as important as urban America because it really is the foundation of how this country was built. And I think it always will be."