Having a Rural Impact on Poverty and Child Abuse: Hope and Care for the Future

Kathleen Belanger, Challenges for Human Services columnistby Kathleen Belanger

In my last Rural Monitor column, I wrote about rural poverty, and the importance of providing children and families with adequate healthcare, employment, education, and human services. However, providing a quilt of prosperity for families is only part of the story. What we may not realize is that our failure to provide adequate health and human services for rural children has dire results.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families released the Fourth National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect, which looked at the prevalence of maltreatment and endangerment in the United States, whether or not it is reported or investigated. The study found that rural children had approximately twice the rate of overall “harm standard” and “endangerment standard” maltreatment than urban children. That means that rural children are twice as likely to be considered abused and/or neglected by teachers, doctors, or others participating in the study.

The study’s results are particularly alarming when considered with the fact that child abuse and neglect, both traumatic life events and situations with life-long impact, are also related to poverty and to lack of employment.

The financial and emotional costs to a family for substantiated allegations of abuse and neglect are severe. Children can be taken from their families to live with relatives, or even with strangers. Each move and each incidence of neglect or abuse makes it harder for the child to form other relationships, to “attach” to others, trust others, and love others. Parents, who may already have insufficient income and multiple stressors, then have to find ways to attend classes, receive treatment, and repair homes and practices with little help. Communities suffer when their children and families suffer, with increased burdens in schools and local healthcare systems. The total costs for child abuse and neglect are staggering, rivaling healthcare costs for stroke, diabetes, and heart attacks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, estimated lifetime costs for each surviving victim of child maltreatment is $210,012.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests a two-generation approach to addressing poverty. It cites poor families’ struggles with unpredictable and inflexible jobs that fail to pay enough to support a family, lack of child care and educational opportunities, and fragmented social systems that work in isolation. Their two-generational approach includes providing stable employment to support families, high quality child care and early education along with quality elementary schools, and education and support for families through home visiting programs. The Foundation suggests numerous policy and practice solutions that include integrated, practical solutions for the whole family, putting “common sense into common practice.”

The White House Rural Council has recognized the importance of addressing these challenges specifically for rural families, who often have the fewest personal, public or private resources. Their Rural Impact initiative creates a collaboration of federal agencies and public and private resources to develop a multi-generational approach for investing in rural families and communities. At its core, Rural Impact attempts to maximize innovation, build public awareness, and invest in child care, early learning, education, and employment.

Rural Impact intends to create and integrate resources directed at eliminating rural hunger, addressing rural poverty (through USDA’s StrikeForce for Rural Growth and Opportunity Initiative), investing in distance learning and telehealth, supporting community-led initiatives, and empowering rural communities while increasing educational opportunities. By taking an integrated, direct approach that specifically focuses on rural communities, this effort provides hope to all of us, rural and urban alike, because urban and rural communities are inextricably connected. It is the entire country that pays the price for child abuse and neglect, now and in the future. It is the entire country that cares for those who become dependent, incarcerated, hospitalized. And it’s the entire country that can be engaged through the White House Rural Council to address those who have so long been neglected. As Dr. Seuss reminds us in The Lorax:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.



Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., is Professor of Social Work at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and is a member of the RUPRI Human Services Panel, and recipient of CWLA’s Champion for Children award in 2005 for her work in rural child welfare. Belanger has published and presented on rural human services issues in a variety of publications and forums. In addition, she has worked for more than 20 years with rural communities, where she has helped found several non-profit organizations and advocated for rural resources.

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