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Another Voice: Rural areas are suffering from poverty and are more difficult to serve

By the Rev. Frank Cerny

Kudos to The News for the recent article on shifting poverty statistics. As Charity Vogel clearly showed, these statistics do not give the full picture. Zero change in an area with 15 percent poverty is unacceptable.

Here’s another statistic: For the first time in U.S. history, more people are living in poverty outside our cities. This is true for Erie County, where it is estimated that more than 60 percent of those in poverty live outside the City of Buffalo.

Rural poverty, because it is dispersed, is called the invisible poverty – and this also is true in Erie County. The Oishei Foundation’s Mobile Safety Net Team reports that in the rural tract of Concord, more than 10 percent of the population lived in poverty while another 19 percent were close to poverty and another 28 percent were doing poorly or struggling financially. Sixty percent of this rural area fell into one of these three categories. This is not unusual for the rural areas of Western New York.

What is striking is that people living in these rural areas have limited, if any, access to support services that might help them deal with any of the issues facing families in poverty – including crisis intervention. And if there is no support in dealing with crises, how can people even think of moving toward self-sufficiency?

Those living in rural areas suffered more loss of jobs and other resources as a result of the latest recession – and have been left further behind in the recovery.

And yet, the focus tends to be away from these areas, essentially writing off this population. This is true in spite of the fact that rates of domestic violence, substance abuse and teen pregnancy are the same or higher in our rural than in our urban areas.

The failure to recognize rural poverty has resulted in a failure to invest in these communities. As a result, employment opportunities have decreased, making entry-level jobs career jobs. The lack of support for early childhood education, including preschool, means many children in rural areas enter school far behind and rarely catch up, contributing to generational poverty.

Because the rural population is dispersed, solutions are more difficult to implement. But experiments in communities of care that offer wrap-around services to meet the multiple, complex needs of children, families and individuals in rural areas offer a solution.

I am not saying that we need to prioritize solutions for the rural poor over those of the urban poor. What I am saying is that they all – urban or rural – deserve our support and encouragement. When we support those in poverty, we raise up the entire community.

The Rev. Frank Cerny is the founder and executive director of the Rural Outreach Center, which assists, empowers and elevates the impoverished rural populations around Southern Erie County.

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