Revisiting Poverty in Rural America

"The People Left Behind" Are Today the People Still Behind

By Joe Belden and Lance George, Housing Assistance Council

rv-se-2014-coverThis story appears in the 2014 Special Edition of Rural VoicesThe United States has a long – but not recent – history of important, high-level efforts to combat rural poverty. The Homestead Act of 1862, Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 Country Life Commission, and the Resettlement and Farm Security Administrations during the New Deal were such efforts, strongly supported by Presidents. Very recently, there has been wide recognition of the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Less well known was another effort that began in 1966: President Johnson’s creation of a National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty. It held hearings, conducted research, and in September 1967 produced a 160-page report, “The People Left Behind,” that is still relevant today. The report’s summary begins: “This is a report about a problem which many in the United States do not realize exists. The problem is rural poverty. It affects 14 million Americans. Rural poverty is so widespread, and so acute, as to be national disgrace…. The total number of rural poor would be even larger than 14 million had not so many of them moved to the city…. This Nation has been largely oblivious to these … impoverished people left behind in rural America.”

The report found that the rural poor population is characterized by low incomes, higher unemployment, low educational attainment, poor housing, hunger, malnutrition, and a higher infant mortality rate than among the least privileged urban groups. The Commission also laid out several primary recommendations to “eliminate” poverty in rural America:

  1. The U.S. should adopt and effect a policy of equal opportunity for all people,
  2. The national policy of full employment, inaugurated in 1946, should be made effective,
  3. Our federal government should assure all people enough income for a decent living,
  4. Manpower policies and programs should be revamped,
  5. Rural education should be improved,
  6. Better health services with family planning should be provided,
  7. An improvement should be made in rural housing, and
  8. Multicounty districts should be formed to plan cooperatively and coordinate programs for economic development.

The report also recognized that rural is more than agriculture. The impetus and energy behind this focus on rural poverty coincided with several large-scale and better-known policy and government initiatives to combat poverty and inequality more generally. These included the Social Security Act of 1965 (Medicare & Medicaid), the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Office of Economic Opportunity, VISTA, the Community Action Program, Job Corps, Head Start, Legal Services, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and the continuation and expansion of many New Deal initiatives.

A commitment to the improvement of housing conditions among the rural poor was also evident in dramatic increases in USDA’s housing production through the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). FmHA’s housing programs began in 1950, but were not expanded and widely used until the 1970s. Between 1970 and 1980, over 1 million low-income rural households became homeowners through low cost mortgage loans from FmHA. In fact, roughly one-half of all direct homeownership loans ever issued by USDA were made in the 1970s alone. Similarly, more than 40 percent of affordable rental housing units funded by USDA were developed between 1963 and 1980. Additional housing improvements and efforts were initiated by the newly formed U.S.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) throughout rural America during this time. The pace of anti-poverty efforts slowed markedly in the 1980s after substantial cuts in domestic federal aid and social safety net programs. In the mid-1990s, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, or “welfare reform,” was enacted. While welfare reform was largely viewed as a success in moving people to work, the overall impacts are still being assessed and can vary widely by state.

Today, poverty, and especially rural poverty, seems to have become an afterthought in national priority or action. “Inequality” is the more politically correct word. But more than 40 million Americans – one-quarter of whom live in rural communities – still have incomes below the poverty threshold. The poverty rate has been consistently higher in rural America since the government began keeping track of this condition in the 1960s. There has been no increase in the federal minimum wage in five years. And in the recent severe recession, many Americans slipped into poverty and lost their jobs, homes, or both.

Increased access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act is a significant accomplishment for low-income people. But new or meaningful federal actions to improve the economic and living standards of our poorest citizens are sparse to nonexistent. While progress in the long fight on poverty is undeniable, it could be argued that much of that success was a direct result of the energy and effort of the substantial federal investment in the early years of the war on poverty.

In a 1966 message creating the Commission on Rural Poverty, President Johnson wrote that “[t]he abolition [of] rural poverty may require a journey of a thousand miles.” “The People Left Behind” found that there were 14 million rural Americans living in poverty. We have come some of the way. But in 2014 10 million rural people are still “left behind.” Isn’t it time that the federal government and its leaders once again pay attention to the stain and injustice of poverty and help the millions of rural Americans who are still behind?