Nonprofits in Rural America Face Deepening Problems

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Rural poverty

November 14, 2014; Daily Mail (Hudson, NY)

Next week is the annual meeting of the Housing Assistance Council, one of the nation’s premier rural advocacy organizations. This author will be speaking on a panel examining rural philanthropy (natch!) amidst many sessions exploring exactly what is happening—or not happening—in rural America. Rural nonprofits know all too well the challenges they face, but many non-rural nonprofits may not.

  • Homelessness: Few people associate the homeless with rural America, but truth be told, there are many rural homeless, and typically they are more hidden, less visible, less concentrated, and frequently less well served than the homeless in cities. In tiny Beattyville, Kentucky, community residents have been trying to create a shelter for the area’s homeless without success. In largely rural Greene and Columbia counties in New York, homeless persons can be found sleeping in cars, even baseball dugouts, or wandering through 24-hour convenience stores, according to Florence Ohle, the executive director of Community Action of Greene County. Crook County, Oregon, has 20,000 people, including about 200 homeless persons. How much support do rural nonprofits get for rural homelessness? It’s hard to imagine that rural groups get the kind of help they need to address the distinctive problem of rural homelessness.
  • Healthcare: The rural healthcare challenges appear to be getting worse. A recent report on healthcare in rural North Carolina reflects conditions across rural America: “North Carolinians living in rural areas are less likely to have access to health services, are more likely to engage in risky health behaviors, and have a higher mortality rate than North Carolinians living in non-rural areas. The health disparities between urban and rural residents are due to a number of factors including: differences in demographic and socioeconomic factors, health behaviors, and access to and availability of health care services.” This is all exacerbated by the problems faced by rural hospitals, 43 of which having closed since 2010 and six more reportedly on the brink of collapse, according to a recent report in USA Today. The Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia just filed for bankruptcy protection, the Ty Cobb Regional Medical Center in Lavonia is in financial trouble, and 15 rural hospitals in Georgia are classified as “financially fragile.” In Virginia, 20 of the state’s 37 rural hospitals are “operating in the red.” The healthcare crisis in rural America is, sadly, in many cases worse than that in urban America, fundamentally because of the lack of access to quality healthcare providers. Note, by the way, that some of the problems of rural hospitals could be partially alleviated by the expansion of Medicaid coverage, but many states, particularly in the South and West, with large rural populations, have been resistant to this commonsense action.
  • Poverty: People underestimate the extent, persistence, and specific problems of rural poverty. An article in the School News Network describes the distinctiveness of rural poverty: “Although the problems of poor rural families are similar to those living in urban areas, their access to help is not…Their remote locations can make it harder for people in the country to deal with poverty than for those in the city, said Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey School of Public Policy. ‘A lot of times the challenges are the same (in rural and urban areas), but the solutions are different,’ Mattingly said. ‘When you’re poor in rural America, you’re much more isolated.’ For instance, while many city dwellers can take public transportation to work, ‘in rural America, to hold down a job it’s pretty much a necessity you have a car,’ she said. But having a car that runs—or even owning one—is a challenge for many families. ‘The needs are so much greater often in the rural areas, because there aren’t the service providers. They’re this island amongst themselves,’ said Carol Paine-McGovern, executive director of the Kent School Services Network.”

The Washington Post described another distinctive dimension of rural poverty, looking at rural communities in Colorado: “The poverty of Las Animas isn’t the poverty of Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or an Indian reservation, entrenched and intergenerational, enforced by age-old hierarchies of race and class. It’s the kind of poverty that can affect anyone who finds themselves in a place when the native industries disappear, as they have in Southeast Colorado and other rural areas across America…‘I think it’s more of a place-based poverty than it is demographic,’ says Tracey Farrigan, an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is studying how rural poverty has spread. ‘People are moving to areas where they can afford to live, which are areas with less support for them. It’s kind of a cycle. So the places are poor, and the people are poor.’”

No one should imagine that rural conditions are somehow vastly improved. On a number of factors, conditions in rural America are tougher, but we have yet to see philanthropic resources mobilized in the way they should be to make progress in reversing rural homelessness, deficiencies in rural healthcare provision, and the persistence of rural poverty.—Rick Cohen

  • Terry Fernsler

    Things are getting worse in rural areas, because they are still largely ignored by philanthropy–foundation, government, and corporate. As a former economic development district director, I realized that nonprofit organizations played a larger role in community development than urban areas, and worked to build their capacity so they could at least compete for philanthropic resources. Many rural nonprofits are trying to do much of the same work as urban nonprofits, often with only one staff person, and/or no full-time staff, and they do not know about free and online resources to build capacity.

  • Vince Crunk

    As a rural dweller and school board member in a small town, where does education fit into this? People say education can lift people out of poverty but if they are too poor, then there might not be any local education available to them. Yes they can still get it but it moves further and further away. So people move, reducing population which …. you can see where this can lead.

  • Stephanie Grams

    As an experienced Donations Director and Assistant Project Director for a tri-county community action agency one of my many tasks included educating the local community leaders on the effects of the economy (on a local and State level) effected their businesses and also shared how they could take action to better our county. While at this particular job I had the privilege of meeting with local clients and the same situation was repeated over and over was the lack of reliable transportation, and lack of personal transportation to get to and from a job. The rural areas lack paved roads, wireless capabilities and in many areas even in Ohio, lack plumbing. Where are these families going to go for education, job training, and employment? How are they going to cross the bridge of poverty and have a chance at living? The nonprofits that serve these individuals/families need to use some of their funds to employ a Donations Director and community activist that will go meet with the local leaders and show them how one action can change their local economy. There is no easy answer, however, there are answers and we need to work together to better our local families.