Urban Research Monitor
The Role of Civic Culture in Rural Poverty

At the dawn of the 21st century, 9 million rural Americans live in poverty. The good news is that rural poverty has been cut in half (from 33 to 16 percent) since the early 1960s when President Johnson issued the baseline report, The People Left Behind. The bad news is that much of this reduction is a result of outmigration to urban areas, not systemic economic or social improvements in rural life. Moreover, the income gap between the rural poor and all other Americans is growing even wider. For Duncan, neglect of the rural poor represents one of the most significant failures of domestic policy in the United States over the past 35 years.

To try to get at the root causes of persistent poverty, Duncan compares three rural towns, two trapped in poverty and one fostering upward mobility. The chronically poor communities are located in two historically impoverished regions, Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta. The more prosperous community is in northern New England. Using these three rural communities—renamed Blackwell, Dahlia, and Gray Mountain, respectively, to protect the privacy of the interviewees—Duncan creates a microworld in which we can see how race, class, economics, culture, social relationships, and local institutions all interact to either help or hinder families trying to escape poverty.

Duncan contends that a community's civic culture—norms for "how things are always done"—determines how impervious to upward mobility the barriers are. She further suggests that because rural communities by nature are more isolated, their civic cultures tend to be anchored in how they were socially, economically, and culturally organized one or even two centuries ago. Blackwell and Dahlia once had been coal mining and plantation towns, respectively, in which "operators and bossmen maintained tight control over workers—not just in the workplace but in every dimension of social and political life." According to Duncan, it is not surprising to find that upward mobility in these communities still is blocked by the continued presence of rigid class and racial divisions, albeit in more modern forms.

The civic cultures of Blackwell and Dahlia stand in stark contrast to the New England community of Gray Mountain. A mill town in the 1800s, today's Gray Mountain is a place where a "public-minded middle class maintains a rich civic culture with inclusive institutions that help those who are ready to leave poverty behind," Duncan finds. She sees the seeds for Gray Mountain's current civic culture in an earlier era when diverse ethnic groups settled there and created active social organizations, joining industry leaders who had decided to live as neighbors to their employees and send their children to the same schools.

According to Duncan, the essential difference between Blackwell and Dahlia, and Gray Mountain, is the size and commitment of the middle class. Gray Mountain has a large middle-class population committed to high-quality public schools, safe neighborhoods, recreation centers, and libraries—all public goods and services that help the poor improve their life opportunities. Duncan argues that when middle-class families comprise the majority, as in Gray Mountain, they ensure steady, ongoing community investments for their own families. This, in turn, benefits poor rural families who live in the same community but are too consumed with survival issues to fight for these investments themselves. If the goal is to stabilize rural families, Gray Mountain appears to be moving in the right direction.

Is it possible to foster more Gray Mountains? Duncan is hopeful but knows it will be difficult. She recommends greater federal investment in public education so that poor rural children can "either find ways to improve themselves and their communities or leave for opportunities elsewhere." For Duncan, education has twin benefits: it widens employment opportunities, and it frees up and prepares individuals to participate in civil society.

However, putting more money into the current educational systems will not be enough in her opinion. To ensure that new funds actually are spent on creating a meaningful educational experience for poor children, there also must be national standards and equitable funding, Duncan believes. Without greater federal oversight and accountability, she fears the money will be captured by entrenched local interests.

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