Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The racial and cultural experience of persistent poverty

In a report issued by the Economic Research Service branch of the USDA, a persistent poverty county is defined as county in which 20% or more of the population were living in poverty for the last thirty years according to census data. Using this definition, there are currently 386 persistent poverty counties in the US, and 340 of them are in counties that are also codified as being "nonmetro." The report mentions the link between rural poverty and race, as well as noting the lack of PPC(persistent poverty county) saturation in the West, Midwest and Northeast. Emphasizing the number of rural PPCs in the South, for brevity's sake or otherwise, the report fails to recognize the similarities of all the rural PPCs across the country. Despite being more scattered in areas other than the densely packed PPCs in the South, the histories of the rural populations living in such multi-generational poverty share common themes of racial and cultural oppression that grossly affect the economies of entire regions of the country.

The ignorance to the shared cultural oppression of rural PPCS evident in the USDA report reflects a general trend in media and scholarly attention primarily focusing upon urban poverty. A good example of this indifference to rural poverty is this quote from the "Who are the poor?" chapter of the book Persistent Poverty (1991) by Richard Roper of Southern Utah University:
Poverty remains a predominantly urban problem, if for no other reason than the fact that 75% of the general population lives in urban areas (pg.51).
Roper then goes on to briefly describe rural poverty trends and summarizes his only section on the rural poor by blaming rural poverty on economic challenges while mostly avoiding discussing the cultural oppressions of the populations facing such "economic insecurity plagues(pg.53)."
I would challenge that persistent poverty represents the results of the "relative" poverty experienced due to the oppression of generations of the same populations within each rural region; and, that this kind of persistent poverty experience is actually of the utmost concern in poverty eradication efforts because,as the USDA report clarifies, 88% of PPCs are in rural areas. The Rural Sociological Society Task Force on Persistent Rural Poverty differentiates between different states of poverty in the book Persistent Poverty in Rural America (1993).  Poverty is defined as being experienced as both a "relative" and "absolute" state.  (p. 138)          

Absolute poverty is described as a
material deprivation to such an extent that one's physical well being is at risk. Extreme material deprivation leads not only to physical degradation but mental despair...Poverty usually entails the unjust loss of choice in one's culture or functional lifestyle(pg.138).
Relative poverty is then defined as the experience of poverty resulting from the structural experience of social conditions that limit income and livelihood, such as structural economic and racial oppression (i.e., racial minorities earn less than whites). Both kinds of poverty result from and further contribute to the powerlessness of people within the social stratification of power and access to resources. A strong distinction is made that while absolute poverty can be affected by individual circumstantial changes; relative poverty can not be remedied without creating vast changes to the power class structures that control the overall distributions of resources in our society.

The Task Force continues to develop an image of the complicated nature of rural persistent poverty through determining that beyond absolute and relative, poverty also represents deprivations other than the deprivation of income and earning capacity traditionally associated with definitions of poverty(pg.174). The experience of deprivation in poverty is multidimensional and includes the deprivation of safety, increased cultural oppression and increased denial of opportunity, among other challenges faced by rural PPC populations. The Task Force emphasizes that racial oppression magnifies and is usually linked to the deprivations of persistent poverty.
Calvin Beale, one of the researchers for the USDA's Economic Research Service, articulates in his contribution to the book Poverty and Race in America (2006) that in most counties where the incidence of poverty is above 20%, the majority of those 20% poor are of minority races(pg.72). If that if that is not the case then, it is the high incidence of poverty amongst the minorities within the dominant population that pushes the percentiles beyond 20% for each county (pg.72). Beale then goes on to describe the racial demographics of traditionally poorest regions of the country (pg.72-74). The introduction to the study Welfare Reform in Persistent Rural Poverty (Pickering 2006) further develops the story behind the accumulations of red counties on the USDA PPC map (pg.1-2).

The southern PPCs result from the history of slavery and racial oppression of African American populations. PPCs in the west, southwest and parts of the plains states include Native American populations experiencing generations of relative poverty, cultural and physical genocide and the experience of the deprivation of life resulting from the reservation system. The populations living in persistent poverty in Texas are mostly comprised of Latino communities oppressed by the economics and inequalities of border-towns. The remaining heavy cluster of PPCs is found in Appalachia where communities have also been generation-ally oppressed by the dominant powers. In Appalachia however, the poor persons are more often white communities struggling against the results of the extraction industry and mining towns.
Evident in the shared history of oppression amongst the majority of all PPCs remains a need to address the structural element of relative poverty. Relative poverty keeps these populations limited and powerless even if their absolute poverty can be mitigated in the short term. Can absolute poverty amongst such multi-generational oppressed groups even be eliminated at all without first acknowledging the systematic abuses that have created these pervasive experiences of relative poverty amongst rural minority groups? And then, what are the next steps in creating the structural changes necessary to start eradicating the relative persistent poverty of rural minority groups?

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