PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Race and Poverty in the Rural South,"

by Margaret Walsh & Cynthia M. Duncan May/June 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

Rural America calls to mind images of dramatic mountain views or peaceful green landscapes, small town living where people look out for one another. Tourists driving in the hills of northern Vermont or West Virginia notice rusty trailers not far from quaint colonial homes and think that it must be a better place to be poor because at least these areas are less crowded, friendlier spaces compared to the nearest city. However, the rural poor, especially in depressed regions, experience the same problems the urban poor do. People have a hard time finding jobs that can support a household. Work is often low-paying, part-time or part-year, and wages do not cover families’ expenses. Housing conditions are substandard. Schools may be as chaotic and ineffective as the worst inner-city schools. Community life in rural areas revolves around family and church, but in persistently poor regions there are rigid divisions between the haves and have-nots. Economic and political power is concentrated among a small white elite who discourage participation and do not invest in community-wide institutions. The poor are socially isolated and cut off from the mainstream.

Nine million people are poor in rural America, of whom three million live in persistently poor areas. Thirty-five percent of rural blacks and 33% of rural Hispanics live in poverty, as do half of all rural black and Hispanic children. The rural South and West are the poorest regions in the United States, and counties with high percentages of African-Americans have disproportionately high poverty rates. Most of the counties in Mississippi have poverty rates above 20%, and some are more than 40% poor. In some, 80% of black residents are poor, and per capita income for blacks may be only one fifth of that for whites. African Americans are more likely to live in substandard, crowded and run-down housing compared to whites, and, with high rates of single-parent households, African American women and children are especially disadvantaged.

Several decades ago, many rural areas welcomed industrial development when manufacturing plants moved out of urban centers and into communities where people needed work and were willing to accept lower wages. However, restructuring has taken its toll in the last decade. In the 1990s, the number of manufacturing jobs in rural areas grew by only 5%. Other dependable goods-producing sectors in rural areas are also diminishing. Between 1990 and 1997, the percentage of farming jobs in rural counties declined by almost 7%, mining jobs decreased by 21%. The booming technology fields have not reached out to rural America. Instead, jobs in the service sector has increased by 26% and low-paying retail employment has grown by 21%. These two sectors comprise 53% of all jobs in rural areas. In 1997, average worker earnings for retail employment were $13,764, compared to $32,207 for manufacturing employment. The majority of the rural poor come from working families. In fact, up to 70% of the rural poor live in families with at least one employed person. But while more of the poor work in rural areas, their wages are low and their jobs are often seasonal or part-time.

To understand persistent rural poverty we need to look beyond work and wages to consider who is working and who is not, and to assess the racial and class dynamics in these communities. Educational attainment and family structure matter greatly, of course—those with low education or in single-parent households are invariably poor. But in chronically poor rural areas, broader long-term inequalities perpetuate poverty. Rigid class and race divisions combine with corrupt, elite-controlled local politics to block the poor from opportunities to participate in the workforce and in civil society. Lingering racism and segregation by race and class mean that inclusive public programs that might provide equal opportunity do not exist. Those with limited resources have only family to fall back on when times are hard.

The brief case study that follows examines race and family poverty in two persistently poor rural Mississippi Delta communities we call Dahlia, whose 1990 population was around 20,000. Thirty percent of households are female-headed and 35% of births are to teens, 91% of those out of wedlock. Forty-two percent of families are poor and 62% had incomes less than half the U.S. median in 1990. The case study draws on 160 interviews conducted with African Americans and whites from all social classes in the early 1990s.

Work, Education, and Family in the Delta

The 6,000 working men and women in Dahlia have jobs in stores, government offices and schools, on large plantation-style farms, in sewing factories and electrical assembly factories, in catfish plants, and, more recently, in casinos located in neighboring counties. African American men and women have a difficult time finding work in a place still rigidly divided by race and class. Only about half of working-age black men have jobs, compared to two-thirds of whites; only one-third of black women are employed, while half of white women have jobs. Blacks who left school early or have only a high-school diploma work in fields and factories, while the few who have a college degree are likely to work in schools and public offices. Many black women still work as domestics. Jobs in the fields are seasonal, and during the winter months farm workers draw unemployment checks and subsist on food stamps. Jobs in sewing factories fluctuate as well, as managers lay off and hire to make production accommodate the demands of their retail customers. A plant with 300 employees may dismiss as many as 50 when orders are low in the spring, and then those workers too go on unemployment and public assistance.

In poor rural communities like Dahlia, black men and women do not have access to full-time jobs with wages that can support a family. Jobs are allocated according to reputation. One worker reported, “These farmers could say, ‘Well, he’s worth hiring’, and they’ll take you.” Many white employers think of black men only as part-time workers: “My employees are colored men. I don’t work anything but black because my business is part-time. I can’t afford to pay somebody a monthly salary year round because we have a seasonal business. The whites are going to need more work that I’m not going to be able to give them.”

African American men in particular have been excluded from the mainstream. Those seeking work say factory managers may worry that black men will cause trouble, and prefer women, whom they see as “docile.” One black man said, “If you do have a job, and you’re outspoken, you can be blackballed, and that’s what happened to me.” Young black men experience racial discrimination in hiring and firing, and many refuse to acquiesce to the poor working conditions their own parents and grandparents accepted from wealthy local employers. As one man describes the class discrimination they also experience: “If you colored and you got money, white people, they will talk to you. If you ain’t got no money, all they want to hear is ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘No, sir.’”

Job segregation by race affects women as well. For example, black women can be cooks in the local restaurants, but not waitresses. Even those who finish high school have difficulty finding steady work that will support their families, although those few who go on to college can find work with higher wages and some job security, even in Dahlia. There is one black woman working at each bank, and college-educated black women work in the schools and the welfare offices. But opportunities are limited, and young women from poor families are likely to have children young, drop out of school, and combine child-rearing duties with public assistance and part-time work in the fields chopping weeds, in the catfish plant cutting off fish heads, or in the sewing plant.

Although educational attainment in this region is increasing, by 1990 only 46% of people in Dahlia had finished high school, compared to 75% in the nation as a whole; 9% were college graduates, compared to 20% nationally. Eighty percent of the 91 low-income men and women interviewed in Dahlia had dropped out of school, girls often because they were pregnant, boys often because they got in trouble and tired of school authority. Mississippi consistently ranks at the bottom of national statistics on student educational outcomes. Many African Americans say the plantation bossmen discourage blacks from finishing school. Whites, too, say there are farmers who see blacks reading as a threat and thus don’t want them educated.

Local schools are segregated into public institutions (almost exclusively black) and private academies attended by whites. Dahlia’s public schools have been on probationary status for years. Long neglected by all-white administrators intent on keeping costs down and programs to a minimum, they do not have the resources to provide students with adequate transferable skills, nor are they consistently held accountable for poor performance. Students, teachers and administrators describe disorder: “It’s a free for all”; and: “It was too wild, like the kids, they all be fighting and stuff, fighting during school, carrying knives around school and all like that.”

The official family poverty rate in Dahlia in 1990 was 42%, but a much higher percentage is visibly poor and struggling. Approximately one out of five people receive public assistance and one out of three collect monthly Social Security payments. Family members rely on each other to raise, support and feed children and to care for aging parents. Several generations may live in a single household. Families are large, as grown children continue to share their grandparents’ or parents’ dwelling long after leaving school. Teenage girls may move in with their boyfriends and set up house for a time, perhaps raising children together, but they often return home when things go awry. Unlike Appalachia, where couples still marry very young, marriage is not the norm for poor young adults in Dahlia. Without job security, men and women are unsure about the future commitments they can make to each other. Sometimes news of better opportunities elsewhere from relatives who have moved away entices men to leave the mothers of their children.

Women view most men they know as unattractive marriage partners because they are unemployed and idle. As one woman reported, the women look for “someone who’s gonna help me financially, help me with me and my kids, someone who’ll treat me right, who won’t be fussing and arguing all the time. You know, caring.” Instead, they often find themselves in situations like this: “He started off real good but lately he done got lazy. I don’t ask him for anything and he don’t offer anything.” Under these conditions, stable long-term male-female relationships are hard to maintain.

Many of the women interviewed described growing up fast with limited choices and many responsibilities. For example, one 24-year-old woman had her first child at the age 14 and had five more, with three different fathers, before the age of 21. Her own mother was twelve when she was born, and her grandmother, who ran a café and worked most evenings, raised her. Although she liked high school, especially cheerleading and playing the flute, she dropped out in ninth grade to take care of her two children. Despite an offer to baby-sit from her grandmother, who wanted the young woman to graduate, she was too overwhelmed by young motherhood and decided she should be at home herself. To earn money, she began working at a local fish plant but was discouraged by the low pay and backbreaking work.

None of the men in this woman’s life were suitable marriage candidates. If she was going to get ahead, she felt she needed to work on her own skills and so returned to school. She talked to her caseworker and signed up for an educational program in the region, and is preparing to take the first portion of her GED exam. She plans to go to a community college nearby to earn a counseling degree and stay near her children. These expectations may be unrealistic. Although it has been difficult, this woman says she is pleased that she had her children while she was young and physically strong, and she imagines a long life ahead: “I always wanted a big family as far as having kids...Now by the time I get through with college, get me a settled-in job, my kids will be old enough and when they are out of my house I’ll still be young enough to enjoy life.”

Stable work and stable families are intertwined in the Delta, just as they are in other places. Unmarried women raising children try to piece together a living with income from their own jobs, help from their children’s fathers, welfare and family assistance. Although women may want to meet men to marry, the men they date lead lives that make it difficult for them to be reliable and provide for children. In relationships that started as short-term romantic attachments, discussions of marriage are usually postponed into the far future, and then mention of it fades away as problems arise. By then, a new boyfriend may be coming around and helping to support the household and children. Many women see their children as their own decision and responsibility, although they pull together a variety of people and sources of support as the children grow up. Being “on their own” is not their ideal situation. They are unlikely to earn adequate income working by themselves. They also miss companionship of a partner. But in most cases the women and men we interviewed did not have access to the resources—skills, good jobs, income growth—that would lead them to the stability needed for a serious relationship or marriage.


Poverty in rural communities like Dahlia is not simply the result of young people “messing up,” as they put it, dropping out of school and having babies young before they have stable relationships and work. Upward mobility and community change are thwarted by rigid stratification based on race and class. Whites live a separate “good life,” looking after their own families, churches and schools. Political and other civic participation by African Americans is actively discouraged by whites, and class and racial divisions create distrust on both sides. As described by one white person, investment in public goods is deliberately eschewed: “There is a standing rule that whites do not want to have anything public because the blacks might come.” Community institutions do not serve poor families. Those who escape poverty are the fortunate few who have made heroic leaps, thanks to extraordinary sacrifice and encouragement by some caring family member or mentor.

In rural places where there is less poverty and inequality, young adults see options, and postpone childbearing and marriage to learn and pursue a job that might be interesting or lead to a career. When they do start families, they are more hopeful and less burdened. These are also places where community institutions work. A large blue-collar middle class supports an inclusive public sphere, and the poor are not isolated from the non-poor. People cooperate and invest in a rich civic culture characterized by trust, wide participation, and community-wide activities and programs. There the poor have a fighting chance to achieve upward mobility.

While various means-tested public assistance programs make life for Dahlia’s poor less harsh than it would be otherwise, they do not combat the chronic poverty among blacks that has plagued the region since the 1800s. Investment in what Mickey Kaus, in The End of Inequality, calls the “egalitarian public sphere of life” is necessary to make a true difference. Real commitment to public education, with federal accountability, could turn schools around. Universal programs to provide family support, health care and training, rather than means-tested subsidies, would help these working poor families without stigmatizing them. Most importantly, these efforts would begin to transform the civic culture and infrastructure in ways that end social isolation and integrate the poor into the community where they can have true equal opportunity.

Margaret Walsh is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Keene State College, Keene, NH.
Cynthia M. Duncan is a former member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board, is Director of Community & Resource Development at the Ford Foundation (320 E. 43 St., NYC, NY 10017, 212/573-5000); prior to that, she was Professor of Sociology at the Univ. of New Hampshire.


This article draws on Duncan’s Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1999), which provides a fuller account of differences between chronically poor divided communities and ones with greater equality and opportunity, as well as work in progress on work and family stability by both authors. For a description of a rural community with lower levels of family poverty and more inclusive institutions, see Walsh’s Mothers’ Helpers: The Resources of Female-Headed Households in a Working Class Community (Ph.D. dissertation, Univ. of New Hampshire, 1997)


Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List