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Debt Deal Leaves Americans Living in Rural Poverty Behind

SOURCE: AP/Orlin Wagner

Students line up for lunch in Chetopa, Kansas. Programs that support education, infrastructure, nutritional supports for new moms and kids, transportation, and job training may be on the chopping block in upcoming deficit reduction talks.

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The image of rural America in the public psyche conjures up scenes of the new frontier: pastoral scenes, expansive farmland, tight-knit communities, and unlimited potential. Despite these idyllic stereotypes, people in rural America actually face greater material hardships and greater barriers to opportunity than people living in metro areas. Rural Americans work as many hours but earn far less and are more reliant on Social Security and the safety net to meet basic needs. Putting it plainly, compared to residents of metro areas, they have less education, poorer health, and are less likely to have access to decent affordable housing, public transportation, and quality medical care they can afford.

In order to unleash rural communities’ full potential, it is imperative to understand the challenges facing families living in diverse rural areas such as Appalachia, the coloñias of South Texas, the Native American reservations of the Midwest, and the stricken Gulf Coast region, and to invest in solutions that will help not only rural residents but all Americans to prosper. The cuts expected in the latest deficit reduction deal will make this task more difficult.

In 2009, the year for which the latest data are available, 17 percent of Americans living in rural areas lived in poverty, topping the poverty rate in metro areas by nearly 3 percentage points. In the South, where rural poverty is concentrated among communities of color, more than one in five people in rural areas were living below the poverty line. Seniors and children in rural areas struggle the most. Nearly half of all children in rural areas live in households with incomes of less than twice the poverty level. And more than 40 percent of seniors in rural areas struggle to get by on low incomes compared to 32 percent of seniors in metro areas.

Americans living in rural areas have reduced transportation options, which can make accessing jobs and economic opportunity in metro areas more difficult, and limited access to broadband can hinder job searches and online entrepreneurship. Families living in rural poverty also have reduced access to health care resources. Since the rural care model provides primary and urgent care in remote areas and refers patients needing specialized care to regional hospitals, low-income families often struggle with cost and access to specialized care. Lack of affordable or accessible transportation options can also isolate low-income families in rural areas from the health services they need to fight an illness, care for an elderly loved one, or provide children with the preventive care services.

Workers in rural areas are also less likely than urban and suburban workers to have access to paid sick days, according to the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. Paid sick days are an important benefit employers offer to permit employees the time to take care of themselves and their families without the threat of job loss or a docked paycheck. A staggering 76 percent of rural part-time workers lack access to paid sick days, as compared to 60 percent of all part-time workers. Poor quality jobs that come with few other benefits are more likely to come without access to paid sick days.

Deficit reduction will cut crucial programs

Lawmakers too often leave concerns like these and others facing low-income families out of important policy debates in which such families have much at stake. The recent debt deal, passed by Congress and signed into law by President Obama last week, is no exception. The 11th hour deal placed a tight cap on discretionary spending, the part of the budget that funds many basic human services programs, yielding nearly $1 trillion in deficit reduction over the next 10 years.

What’s more, a congressional Super Committee, whose 12 members will be announced in the coming week, is charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion more in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. Everything is on the table from taxes to programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid that play a key role in providing economic security for millions of Americans, rural and nonrural alike. If the Super Committee fails to come up with a deal or Congress fails to pass it, automatic cuts will take effect. While entitlement programs that support low-income Americans such as SNAP/food stamps, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and Medicaid are exempted from the automatic cuts, discretionary programs that support education, infrastructure, nutritional supports for new moms and kids, transportation, and job training may be on the chopping block again.

Needless to say, such deep cuts to job-creation and safety net programs would be devastating to low-income families and rural families in particular. The high number of children and seniors living on low incomes in these areas would be most impacted. Cutting programs that build a ladder to opportunity for kids such as Head Start, the Women, Infants and Children program, and job training for youth would further limit the prospects of such children who already have few options, and make it harder to get the education and nutrition assistance that’s essential to their development and success.

The large number of low-income seniors, people with disabilities, and their families living in rural areas could face years of medical debt should Medicaid fall on the chopping block. Community health centers and community action agencies that work in rural areas may face cuts as well, forcing them to reduce staff, services, or even close—leaving these folks to fend for themselves. The community health center in rural Brownsville, Texas, has been able to serve at least 17,000 low-income residents a year, including families struggling with diabetes and those living in coloñias, where problems with the sewage system have given many in the area intestinal problems. 

The fate of these programs will hang in the balance for the rest of this year. Appropriators in Congress and the Super Committee must pursue deficit reduction in a way that creates high-quality jobs with benefits like paid sick days, invests in infrastructure in rural areas, and protects low-income Americans across the board, particularly children and seniors. Critical programs such as SNAP/food stamps and Medicaid should be shielded from cuts and restructuring that would inhibit their ability to meet increased need in recessions.

Cuts to important safety net programs would entrench the economic isolation facing many segments of the population and increase poverty and hardship across the country, particularly in rural areas. It reduces discretionary spending for essential safety net supports such as food and nutrition for women, infants, and children; rent subsidies; and community health center services. It also decreases spending for opportunity programs that help the poor lift themselves out of poverty—everything from Head Start to Self-Help Housing. If Congress or the Super Committee fail to come together on a deficit reduction plan, across-the-board reductions will do even more damage. It is not wise policy, nor is it fair to struggling families to make deep cuts to programs that make the American Dream accessible to all people in all parts of the country.

Katie Wright is Special Assistant at the Center for American Progress.

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