The Promise of Spring or Winter Continued?

Tom Corbett, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Tom Corbett

Spring is the season of rebirth and this year there is some reason for cautious optimism. Jobs are finally being added to the economy—162,000 in March, though surely not in the numbers required for a full recovery. Unemployment has begun to decline, falling from over 10 percent to 9.7 percent. And the Dow has broken through the 11,000-point barrier again, up 68 percent over the past year.

Has the tide turned? Will this apparent rebound reflect many prior recoveries where job growth takes off six or seven months after the recession technically ends? If so, visible substantive employment gains are at our doorstep. Or, will we see the kind of jobless recovery that some fear or, worse, a double-dip recession in which the ravages of a full recession will return?

According to a recent report, A Year or More: The High Cost of Long-Term Unemployment, from the Pew Economic Policy Group, over 44 percent of those out of the labor market met the definition of being “long-term unemployed,” or unemployed for at least six months. That is the highest rate since the Second World War. This far exceeds the 26 percent calculated for 1983. Even worse, some 23 percent of the nearly 15 million unemployed have been out of work for over one year. That also is a record rate.

Unfortunately, the Pew report does not separate out rural versus urban data. However, we can draw some inferences when rates are broken down by occupation. The unemployment rate for those in farming, fishing and forestry positions, essentially rural-type activities, was 21.8 percent in December 2009. This is more than double the national rate.

Earlier this year, in a speech at the USDA’s annual Outlook Forum, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressed concern about the 50 million people who live in rural America. He noted that rural communities have fewer college graduates, enjoy an average annual income that is $11,000 less than the national average, and are the home to 84 percent of the least healthy (the bottom 50) counties in the United States. “These statistics on rural America are a wake-up call, ” Vilsack said.

Rural communities also are aging. The average age of the principal operators of farms has risen to about 57 years, up over six years during the past quarter-century. Adding to the stresses of rural communities is the precarious economic position of so many farms. The last Census of Agriculture showed that, of the 2.2 million farms nationwide, only one million showed net cash income from their farm operations. The remaining 1.2 million depend on non-farm income to get by and many of those jobs have disappeared.

Economic vulnerability does not exist in a vacuum. For one thing, there are spillover effects. One adverse effect is on the quality of family life. In its Winter 2010 Issue Brief, the Carsey Institute reports that child maltreatment in rural families tends to mirror their urban counterparts. Some differences exist, however. Rural families reported to the Child Protective Services (CPS) because of suspected child maltreatment are more likely to be experiencing high family stress and financial difficulties. More than 60 percent of rural caregivers being reported to CPS evidence high family stress as opposed to half of urban families. Nearly one in three have trouble meeting basic needs as opposed to just over one-in-five of their urban counterparts.

In another report (Fact Sheet No. 10, Spring 2010), the Carsey Institute suggests that at-risk children living in remote rural areas are more likely to be removed from their homes (13.7 percent to 10.3 percent). Moreover, about half of all states evidence the highest placement rates in remote rural areas.

Generally speaking, out-of-home placements are not viewed as a positive outcome. Professionals would prefer to work with children in their homes and to strengthen families through improved parenting. The authors conclude that higher poverty rates and a “scarcity of supportive services or gaps in mental health services to address issues contributing to higher placement rates in resource-poor areas” might explain the findings.

Two things would help these rural communities: money and a more coherent system for delivering human services. Let us take money first. One immediate step would be to ensure that rural communities are fully accounted for in the ongoing 2010 Census. Why? Population estimates are used to distribute critical federal dollars.

The top ten federal programs that distribute resources, at least in part, on Census data are: Medical Assistance Program, Unemployment Insurance, Highway planning and construction, Supplemental nutrition assistance program (formerly Food Stamp program), Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (formerly welfare), Federal Pell Grant funds, Title I education grants, Special Ed grants, School Lunch grants and Head Start. We are talking real money here, over $370 billion in 2007.

Unfortunately, some rural areas are likely to be undercounted in the Census count, according to a third Carsey Institute report, Rural Areas Risk Being Overlooked in 2010 Census. The usual suspects that might account for this failure are higher vacancy rates, relatively poor communications (lack of telephones), lower educational levels and higher poverty rates.

The second factor would be better organized interventions and human services. In its 2009 Report, the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services argued that stronger and more preventative interventions are needed to address the needs or rural children at risk. According to the Committee, “This is a particular concern in rural areas because programs and resources are more limited than in urban areas and coordination of services for these children and their families can be made more difficult, given their geographic isolation.” [p.3]

So, what do we have? The specter of another Great Depression has passed. Still, there are deep economic scars that may stay with us for some time. These scars, including related social problems, are particularly acute in remote rural areas. Money to address these issues will be tight. As a consequence, we need to use every resource available to us and to think creatively about how we organize and deliver human services in rural communities.

Tom Corbett has emeritus status at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is an active affiliate with the Institute for Research on Poverty where he served as Associate Director. He has worked on welfare reform issues at all levels of government and continues to work with a number of states on issues of program and systems integration.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Rural Health Information Hub.

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Back to: Spring 2010 Issue