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The old Maytag plant in Herrin is pictured.

Poverty isn’t particular about geography; it affects people everywhere. But in Illinois, rural residents may have a more difficult path out of economic stagnation.

Recovery from the Great Recession has been slower in rural communities compared to their urban counterparts.

“Looking at job growth indices in Illinois, rural jobs have just not yet recovered, whereas urban jobs have recovered,” said Christopher Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs.

One contributing factor is the reliance on manufacturing jobs in rural Illinois, and the impact of those jobs going away.

“There are structural differences between urban and rural counties in respect to their economic base and kinds of jobs that are available,” Merrett said. “Many of the good blue-collar jobs in rural areas have been eliminated through automation or moved to other parts of country or world.

He said the “poster child” for this is Galesburg, with Maytag’s departure. Two decades earlier, International Harvester shut down operations in Canton, and Quincy has seen some of its manufacturing work shifted out.

Studies by the institute show there is a higher proportion of rural people involved in manufacturing than in urban areas. About 14 percent of rural workers are involved in manufacturing, compared to 11 or 12 percent in urban areas.

The tendency of many small communities to put all their economic eggs in one basket can contribute to problems with poverty in rural areas.

“It’s really hard to retool in an area that doesn’t have obvious alternative assets,” Merrett said.

The number of people living in poverty rose higher in U.S. rural areas than urban areas on average over the past decade, according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

ERS statistics through 2015 indicate poverty in U.S. non-metropolitan areas fell by nearly 1 percent from 2014. However, recent research from Iowa State University suggests rural poverty levels in Illinois were at 14.6 percent in 2015 after peaking in 2012 at just under 15 percentt.

ISU data suggests rural poverty rates in Illinois and Missouri are higher than in urban areas in those states.

“There are people struggling, and poverty rates are higher in rural America than in urban areas, especially in the south,” says Michael Rosmann, a psychologist and farmer from Harlan, Iowa, who runs the Ag Behavioral Health website.

Rosmann says as the ag economy has struggled, more cases of depression and even suicide among rural residents are being reported.

“Depression and behavioral problems are more likely to go unreported in rural areas,” Rosmann says.

More people have become dependent upon programs such as USDA’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), he says.

“You see this more outside of the Midwest, and we are better off here in regards to a supply of food than other places,” Rosmann says. “What happens in the Midwest is we have communities that take care of each other, through churches or other types of programs. It’s something they’ve had to do because help is hard to come by.”

While the rest of the U.S. economy struggled for several years, the ag economy was robust. The tables have turned, says Johnathan Hladik, policy program director for the Center for Rural Affairs.

“It takes longer for rural areas to climb out of it,” he says. “We are seeing this increase in rural poverty, and it’s particularly impacting children. From our view, it’s a much larger problem that it’s been in the past.”

But all is not bleak in the heartland, Hladik says.

“We are seeing communities develop program to help children,” he says. “We are seeing more after-school programs, so kids can continue learning after school. We are seeing more donations to local food pantries, which have become a vital part of rural communities.”

Government policy could have a major impact on all rural residents, especially those living in poverty, says ISU Extension sociologist Paul Lasley.

He says funding cuts in state legislatures as well as Congress “have fallen disproportionately on rural residents.”

“There were a lot of promises made in the last election on revitalizing rural communities,” Lasley says. “To date, we haven’t seen much.”

He says it is vital that rural poverty issues be brought to light.

“You just don’t hear a lot about it, but it’s a significant problem across the heartland,” Lasley says. “It’s not going to go away, and we need to be aware of it and do what we can to help people out.”

Nat Williams and Jeff DeYoung write for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern Illinoisan.


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