Often I am irked by books and scholarly articles on closing the achievement gap because they tend to focus on either the racial achievement gap, the achievement gap in major cities, or both. As a current Vermonter who lives in a town with a population under 1000 and who grew up in rural Maine, these articles and books tell an unrecognizable story. The narrative of white, rural poverty gets left out because it is more difficult to pigeon-hole. It can’t be blamed on Jim Crow laws, overcrowded cities, or immigration laws. When our society focuses so much on urban, minority poverty, there is the unspoken elephant in the room: If we can’t blame the poverty on institutionalized racism like high incarceration rates, police brutality, and housing discrimination, then these white people living in poverty don’t have a good reason to be poor. It is a slippery slope from there to believing that when white people live in poverty, it is their own fault.
When books are written about rural poverty, the focus tends to be on well-known communities with high poverty. However, Appalachia, the Ozarks, the Mississippi Delta, the Dakotas, the Rio Grande Valley, and the Cotton Belt do not describe Vermont, Maine or any other New England community. New England is usually shown as an example with little poverty and therefore does not get much attention. New England’s communities should not have to be grouped into the narrative of rural America elsewhere.
The contrast can be clearly seen in statistics. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 34.7% of Vermonters volunteer, ranking them 6th among the 50 states and Washington, DC, while other states with significant white, rural poverty are considerably lower, such as West Virginia with 20.7%. The number of volunteer hours given per resident in Vermont is 32.9, while in other states with high rural poverty portray considerably less, such as Mississippi with 26.4 or Kentucky with 27.7. Please don’t assume that the reason for this is because white people are volunteering more hours. In Mississippi, for instance, the three-year pooled number of volunteer hours by whites is 48 and by blacks is 52, indicating that volunteering is not limited by race.
However, Vermont isn’t the only New England state with these statistics. 73.9% of Maine residents engage in “informal volunteering”, such as doing favors for neighbors, while the national average is 62.5%. An astounding 90.1% of Mainers frequently talk with neighbors. And finally, 97% of those living in Maine eat dinner with other members of the household, an indication of valuing community at the micro level. (All statistics in this paragraph from Corporation for National and Community Service.)
A new narrative about rural poverty needs to emerge. It is a narrative of community, of shared resources, and a value of the land. The rural communities I know recognize everyone’s last name and their history; they are proud of the land they live on because the land has belonged to their family for generations. There are family farms that are no longer economically viable, and have been divided into small trailer parks. However, the descendents of the original farmers living in these communities help each other out and often try to make the farm fit their needs. The older generations still volunteer at the local library, school, historical societies or churches. The community gathers around people in need. Meals are prepared for those with illness or family emergencies; friends watch each other’s children. This new narrative of community engagement needs to swell and take its place in our national poverty discussion.
The current narrative that focuses on urban poverty particularly frustrates since it doesn’t recognize the statistics of US poverty. As Tom Vilsack, the US Secretary of Agriculture, pointed out in 2011, “…Rural America is a unique and interesting place that I don’t think a lot of folks fully appreciate and understand. They don’t understand that while it represents 16 percent of America’s population, 44 percent of the military comes from rural America. It’s the source of our food, fiber and feed, and 88 percent of our renewable water resources. One of every 12 jobs in the American economy is connected in some way to what happens in rural America. It’s one of the few parts of our economy that still has a trade surplus. And sometimes people don’t realize that 90 percent of the persistent poverty counties are located in rural America.”
There is a level of trust within New England’s towns; people watch out for each other and this crosses economic lines. There is an investment in the communities by individuals because there is less transitory poverty; often those living in these areas have been there for generations. Finally, town participation is inclusive. Families of all economic backgrounds come out for spaghetti dinners and football games. The percentage of Vermonters, for instance who are active in their neighborhoods, is over double the national average. (Corporation for National and Community Service.) This is the New England narrative I witness on a daily basis – neighbors helping neighbors, and this engagement in the community builds both trust and awareness that cannot be built when community members don’t interact. When members of a society are willing to cross economic lines and see others as individuals instead of a stereotyped group, trust emerges.
The role of community can’t be underestimated when discussing rural poverty, since many of the federal programs are difficult to access from rural areas. For instance, Maine takes up almost half of New England, but is often overlooked because it only holds 9% of New England’s population. However, 43% of New England’s rural population live in Maine and the rural poverty rate is above 15%. (January 2014 Report Community Outlook Survey Report) However, programs like SNAP and housing vouchers don’t have the same impact in these rural areas because of limited access. “Rural eastern and northern Maine traditionally have high unemployment and under-employment numbers. …The rural infrastructure and the limited and untrained workforce does not lend itself to economic growth.” (New England Community Outlook Survey respondent from Maine)
However, in every dark cloud there is a silver lining. The lack of infrastructure forces communities to look inward; when they know help isn’t coming from outside, they stop expecting someone else to step in and work together for a solution. This is where New England’s reputation for hard work and determination emerges. It is what I experienced as a Vermonter during tropical storm Irene in 2011 and as a Mainer during the ice storm of 1998. When the government bureaucracy finally showed up, days after the storms had passed through, they found neighbors helping neighbors. Temporary bridges had been made, roads cleared, river walls built up, and families taking other families into their homes. The looting often found in urban areas after a natural disaster was non-existent. Moments like this bond communities together and have no economic division.
The narrative of white, rural poverty must change to one of inclusive community engagement that crosses economic lines. No longer can we sit by and allow the nation to believe that poverty belongs solely to cities or a single racial group. New England poverty includes all races, and together they form a community. The unspoken bias of silence about white poverty must be broken. In its place, a new narrative emerges – a narrative of communities working together to rise up. This is not one, powerful story, but a collection of small moments. It is the moment a stranger stops to help push a car out of a snow bank. It is the moment a timber frame barn is raised through the collective effort of a hundred hands. It is the moment a meal is delivered to a new mother, hot from the oven. It is a thousand tiny moments in a thousand, tiny communities.
Visit Kendra LaRoche’s blog, http://ruralachievement.jimdo.com/, to leave your own tiny moment of community teamwork in rural New England.
Kendra LaRoche specializes as a school coach, working with districts and individual schools to identify a specific goal related to the achievement gap, and develop and implement an action plan, as well as evaluate the effectiveness of the plan. Additionally, Kendra offers workshops to educators in the areas of growth mindset, relationship building, increasing rigor, differentiation, and widening worldviews.
Kendra is a Rowland Fellow of the 2011 cohort, and currently teaches at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester, VT. She resides in Middletown Springs, Vermont with her two children.