Urban Research Monitor
It Takes a Multifaceted Strategy To Survive Today

For their study, Nelson and Smith asked more than 100 rural Vermonters to describe their survival techniques in today's economy. Their research, which took place between 1991 and 1992, challenges some of the basic assumptions about how America's economy works in rural areas and small towns.

Conventional wisdom holds that there are two distinct economies. The first is a formal economy tied to wage labor; the second, an informal economy in which bartering, moonlighting, and various forms of self-provisioning take place. It is believed that middle-income families rely on the first, and poor families, on the second. Nelson and Smith crack this perception by showing that not only do most rural Vermont families actively participate in both economies, but it is the middle-income families who take the greatest advantage of the opportunities available in both economies. The authors reason that this happens because families who are tied to good jobs with benefits have more time and resources to explore other income-producing opportunities.

So what are the implications of this research for poor families living in rural areas and small towns? If one family member does not have a "good job" (that is, a year-round, full-time job with benefits), it becomes extremely difficult for that family to put together the combination of formal and informal economy survival strategies typical of successful households. This is because the instability of "bad jobs" constantly disrupts employment patterns. "In the absence of substantial resources and predictable schedules, members of bad job households take on waged moonlighting jobs (or engage in ersatz entrepreneurial activities such as trading) rather than developing on-the-side businesses," Nelson and Smith explain. "As a consequence, members of bad work households have little control over what happens to them outside their 'regular' employment (or, for that matter, inside it)."

Nelson and Smith are not optimistic about change for the better. With the restructuring of the economy, they see only more bad jobs on the horizon as firms increasingly shed responsibility for traditional employee benefits and rely more on temporary help and outsourcing.

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