Rural Poverty and Rural Development

By Barbara Ellen Smith

Vol. 13, No. 2, 1991, pp. 14-17

I belong to a generation that never experienced the frightening, pervasive poverty of the Great Depression. I grew up in an urban area believing that poverty was a problem of urban areas, primarily central cities, and that rural poverty was a problem of my parents' and grandparents' generations.

I learned a long time ago that my perceptions were naive and ill-informed. but I also learned that many of the dominant ideas about poverty--ideas that have framed the debate over poverty and guided public policy toward it--are also ill-conceived.

One popular idea holds that poverty in rural areas is a consequence of those areas' isolation from the mainstream economy and culture. The persistence of poverty in rural areas confirms their backwardness, their resistance to integration with the mainstream, If you hold this point of view and are in a position to influence public policy, then you attempt to increase access to rural areas; you develop the rural infrastructure, promote the ties between rural and urban areas, and above all build roads. You may also create "growth centers" that you hope will function as magnets for investment and stimuli for rural development Those of you who are familiar with the policies of the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) will recognize these activities as the cornerstone of ARC's "bricks and mortar" approach to development.

A second view holds that rural people are poor primarily because they have too little money and lack access to necessary services such as health care, education, vocational training, and so forth. If you adopt this view, then you try to increase the availability, affordability and accessibility of services in rural areas. You subsidize rural clinics and public schools. To the extent that there was grassroots opposition to ARC development policy, it centered on the need to promote such services rather than build more roads.

A third approach to rural poverty that literally arrived with the Mayflower and the Protestant ethic of the early pilgrims, but has enjoyed renewed appeal lately, holds that poverty is ultimately the fault of the individual who is poor. Poor people, urban and rural, live in a culture of poverty, a cycle of poverty, that involves a suspiciously irregular attachment to the labor force, a weak work ethic, too many children, and so forth. This view undergirds the punitive and coercive initiatives in welfare policy that we have seen of late.

These first two approaches--"bricks and mortar" development and increasing access to services--have both bad beneficial consequences in rural areas. Where implemented, they have relieved some of the burdens of


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living in rural poverty and in some cases have allowed individuals to leave the ranks of the poor.

However, I am convinced that if we limit our analysis and our public policy to these choices, we will never eliminate or consistently reduce poverty in rural areas. The fundamental problem with all of these approaches is that they view poverty as the problem of areas and individuals who are outside of the mainstream of middleclass America, and who require a special set of anti- poverty policies tailored to their needs.

Poverty is not a problem of areas isolated or left behind by the mainstream economy; poverty is inherent in an economy where there is constant, downward pressure on the wages and standard of living of poor and working class people. Poverty is not just something happening to "those people" over there--rural areas or central cities. In an era of such great economic uncertainty, when there is increasingly extreme inequality in the distribution of wealth, a declining standard of living, a disintegration in public services of all sorts, poverty hangs as a dreadful potential over us all. Except for those with substantial personal or family wealth (which is a small proportion even of the white population), we are all one disabling illness away from poverty. Endemic poverty cannot be solved by a set of programs (food stamps, AFDC, and other "welfare" programs) isolated from the meat and potatoes of economic policy, tax policy, and development policy. As long as we isolate the problem of poverty and anti-poverty policies from the mainstream economy and economic policy, we will never get at the fundamental relations of power that are at the root of poverty.

Poverty systematically created

In the United States, we sometimes talk about poverty as if it just "happens" to individuals. Some "escape" it, others "fall into" it who knows why? Poverty does not just "happen"; poverty has been systematically created.

Nowhere is this more clear or more true than in the rural South where poverty has been systematically created by individuals who have enriched themselves by the labor and impoverishment of others. Poverty has been sustained and nourished by those who have an interest in its perpetuation.

Let us not forget, as we analyze and search for solutions to the problem of rural poverty, that the economy of the rural South was built on the backs of those who were impoverished in the most extreme, ultimate sense, legally and economically. Slavery was the chief labor system in the rural South for three centuries, and it has only been in the last twenty-five years that some of the most offensive aspects of its legacy have been formally and legally if not actually abolished. Slavery set the floor, the standard for the remuneration of workers and small farmers in the South. It is small wonder that a race-based system of no wages should be replaced by a race-based system of low wages, in which black workers and white workers, male workers and female workers, have been assigned different jobs, sometimes to different workplaces, to the division, the detriment, and the impoverishment of all.

For the last hundred years, economic boosters and industrial recruiters have advertised the South's attractions to business: its natural resources, cheap electricity, and above all, its cheap labor. Textile manufacturers were among the first to heed this call. They built factories that made the rural South the most industrialized rural region of the U.S. but they also paid their workers--predominantly white women and children--such low wages that they ensured the continued impoverishment of rural Southerners. Heeding the racial code of the time, these early industrialists hired almost no blacks in their mills. 'This helped to ensure that rural blacks would have no alternative to tenancy and sharecropping, and thus continue to provide cheap labor for white planters. The details of these historical arrangements are not the important point. The point is that for these early architects of the "New South," poverty and racism were not the chief problems of the region--poverty and racism were the chief assets.

Up until the mid-1980s, a succession of business leaders and economic developers have continued to feature the poverty, powerlessness and racial division of its workers as the rural South's chief attractions. "Cheap labor, docile labor, no unions, no strikes"--these are the watchwords. And, within the limits of their view of the world, this strategy worked. Manufacturers in search of low wages streamed into the region, making the rural South the branch plant capital of the United States.

In the last five to ten years, however, all has begun to change. Unfortunately, this is not because the South's business and political leaders have undergone a sudden moral awakening. Rater, economic development policies have begun to move away from industrial recruitment because the strategy no longer works. In an era of global mobility, the labor-intensive manufacturing industries that once sought the rural South's cheap labor are precisely those industries most likely to relocate overseas, where they can pay workers one-tenth of what they pay rural Southerners.

Thus, community after community in the rural South has been abandoned by corporate employers that were once the life-blood of the local economy. This disinvestment has left in its wake abandoned factories, unem-


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ployed workers, intensified poverty, and increased out-migration of the population, especially the young. I do not need to chronicle the hardship; you see it every day. What I would like to emphasize, though, is the opportunity that this hardship presents.

A 'free space' for economic debate

The breakdown in the economic order of the rural South has created a "free space," an open space in which fundamental questions about the economy are now open for debate. Probably not since the Great Depression has this happened on such a scale. Those who want to stay in the rural areas they consider home are asking: What kinds of jobs do we want to try to create in our community? How can we do that? Who should make decisions about the future of our community? How--beyond jobs--do we want to develop our community?

These questions are open for debate because the individuals and institutions that once defined and ran the local economy are disappearing. As the old order breaks down, the paternalism and powerlessness that once held poor and working-class people in a dependent relationship with local economic elites are also breaking down. Most political officials, including state and local development authorities, have been completely unable to offer new, meaningful development strategies for rural communities. Some continue to pursue industrial recruitment; other pursue tourism, if the area is scenic; if not, they advise development of hazardous waste dumps. There is a void in vision, a void in leadership about how to transform the rural South into a better place where all can make a decent living.

The most hopeful and creative initiatives in rural development today are coming from the grassroots, often from people who were victims of development in the past People in communities across the rural South, from southwest Virginia to coastal Louisiana, have begun to come together locally in new ways to exert greater control over their economic future. In Ivanhoe, Virginia, for example, a series of plant closings left people without jobs, without income, without their young people. Poor and working-class citizens realized that if anything was going to be done to reverse the situation, they would have to do it themselves. They went to the county industrial commission and were rebuffed. They tried the traditional strategy of recruiting a factory and failed. Finally, they decided to develop their own vision of development They decided that a small-scale tourist industry under community control would be most desirable and feasible. They are now fighting with the county commission over access to land on which to develop this industry, so they have not yet accomplished what they set out to do. However, in the process of developing their own vision of development they have developed leadership, deepened their political savvy and understanding, built a community organization, and above all begun to view the economy and economic development not as things that someone else does to them, but as processes that they can initiate and control.

There are many examples of community-based development. MACE in Mississippi and the Southern Mutual Help Association in Louisiana have targeted low-income housing as a priority and put together creative initiatives combining private capital, community-based done, volunteers, and federal dollars to build or upgrade housing for poor people. Other groups have focused on access to capital for those traditionally shut out of the credit system--be they black, female, or poor.

All of these approaches to development can be grouped together as "self help" models. They emphasize development from within, reliance on local talent, energy, organizations, and capital.

Others have targeted policies and practices in the mainstream economy and used the political process to exert control over those they consider most objectionable. For example, groups have sought legislation to soften the impact of plant closings, improve retraining for displaced workers, and extend pro-rated benefits to part-time and temporary workers. Although such efforts are often reactive, rather than proactive, they address economic trends that affect millions of poor and working class people.

Community-based approaches are best

The best--meaning durable, visionary, and potentially far-reaching--of these diverse approaches to development have common elements. First, they seek to build broad coalitions that reach across the divides of race, class and gender. They include church groups, civil rights groups, women's organizations, labor unions, and whoever else is interested in and supportive of the agenda of community-oriented development.

Second, they seek to build or re-build community in all its aspects. Thus the group in Ivanhoe conducted an extensive oral history project that documented the history of their community and resulted in the publication of two books that are a source of great pride. Most recently, they have started a community radio station. The priority is community development, not individual advancement.

Third, these groups support and recognize the leadership of those who have no traditionally been in positions of power, be they black, female, poor, or all three. Associated with this promotion of non-traditional leadership is a reliance on local talent and resources, be it the skills


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of local carpenters, the capital of local banks, or the natural resources of local timber, water, or scenic beauty.

Finally, these efforts reach beyond traditional definitions of economic development. Development is not just jobs; development is childcare, recreation facilities, housing, and quality education. This redefinition involves not only the substance of development but also the process and, above all, the question of who controls the process. All of these efforts reject the notion that development should be done to or for the rural South, and argue instead that development should be done by rural Southerners for their communities. In other words, development should be democratic.

This central idea that development must be democratic is the most significant aspect of these new community-based initiatives. It makes them visionary and potentially transformative, yet at the same time keeps them culturally rooted and appropriate, given the traditions and values of our county.

Fundamental and strategic questions

As hopeful and inspiring as many of these efforts are, they will remain isolated and marginal unless we begin to tackle at least two fundamental strategic questions. First is a group of questions concerning the relationship between economic development and the political process. We face a situation in this county where "our" government, especially at the federal level, exercises considerable control over certain aspects of the economy through. for example, taxation, the Federal Reserve system, and the federal budget Yet the decisions most directly affecting our rural economies at the local level--for example, the decision to invest or disinvest in a certain plant in rural Mississippi--are all in private hands. How can we utilize the political process to enforce greater accountability by private capital to our local communities? How can local political institutions--county commissions, local development authorities, and municipal governments--be used to the fullest extent to influence investment and disinvestment decisions, and the larger community development process? What are the limits and potential for realizing a new vision of community development through the political process?

Looking critically at these questions will lead us to create new political tools, such as the Community Reinvestment Act, that increase the accountability of capital to local communities and that expand the potential for genuinely democratic development I think we will also begin to look more broadly and inclusively and build new coalitions that join people across the boundaries of towns and counties and thereby overcome the fragmented and competitive characteristics of traditional economic development In such a direction lies the political power necessary to make development happen and make it happen democratically. Ultimately, I think we will grapple with the need to align federal economic policy with our local development visions. Over the long run, we cannot successfully promote investment and a decent standard of living in the Delta or the coalfields or anywhere else in the rural South when the federal government promotes capital mobility out of the region (through, for example, the recent "fast track" negotiations with Mexico) and purposefully undermines the wages and economic power of workers.

This leads to the ultimate practical question that all development efforts face: access to capital. Rural poor people obviously do not control, nor do they have access to, capital. Our efforts are doomed to marginality until we figure out how to leverage significant private-sector funds or develop the political power to leverage significant public-sector funds for rural development. As awesome as this task may seem, the more difficult and enduring question involves who will control the allocation of such funds. We do not need to create another Appalachian Regional Commission with a fat budget for the rural South. We do not need to leverage federal monies for porkbarrel projects controlled by unaccountable political machines. As we expand our vision and strategy, we need to hold fast to the empowering process that necessity currently dictates we are doing development for our communities. This means, I think, that we need to build broadly participatory community organizations that, precisely because of their solid and broad social base (and not because of shrewd grant-seekers), are capable of leveraging funds for development and ensuring that those funds are spent where they are most needed. Only as development becomes genuinely democratic and participatory can it improve the lives of those who have been so exploited and impoverished by development in the past.

Barbara Ellen Smith's comment were made in Atlanta during the Southern Regional Council's annual meeting last November