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Living Science: Hidden and Growing

KATHERINE CURTIS AND LEANN TIGGES are professors of community and environmental sociology at CALS.

Curtis studies “spatial inequality,” the unequal amounts of resources, services or qualities in various locations, along with such related elements as population loss, socioeconomic disadvantage and environmental sensitivity. Her research forms the core of a UW-Extension program that provides educators with information for local programming to reduce poverty and meet the needs of economically vulnerable residents.

Tigges teaches courses on labor markets and place-based poverty. Her research examines the livelihood strategies of rural Wisconsin families, the changing employment practices of Wisconsin manufacturers and the ethanol industry as a source of employment in Wisconsin.

Q:  What does poverty in rural Wisconsin look like?

Katherine Curtis: One thing that makes rural poverty particularly interesting is that it’s actually hard to see. Often, when considering urban poverty, neighborhoods with boarded windows, litter and graffiti, or other symbols of disorganization and economic hardship come to mind. Poverty in urban places tends to be clustered and visible. In contrast, rural poverty is “hidden” in the sense that impoverished people and households are not spatially clustered. The rural poor live near the financially secure or, in especially sparsely settled communities, they tend to be isolated from other people. The rural poor are often out of view.

Q:  How serious is the problem of rural poverty in Wisconsin? Has it increased in recent years?

Curtis: For the state as a whole, poverty grew from 8.7 percent in 2000 to 13.2 percent for the period covering 2006 to 2010, marking a nearly 52 percent increase in poverty. At the same time, poverty increased in rural counties in Wisconsin. In 2000, the average poverty rate for rural counties was 9.6 percent. For the 2006–2010 period, poverty had grown to 12.6 percent. Poverty increased similarly in the state’s urban counties (7.2 percent in 2000 and 10.1 percent in 2006–2010). However, the level of poverty was consistently lower among urban counties compared to rural counties.

Q:  Can you please define rural poverty for us?

Leann Tigges: The poverty level in the United States is around $11,000 a year for a single person. You add about $4,000 per person to that to determine the level for different-size families. So for a family of three: about $19,000. If you make more than that, you’re not considered “poor” and if you make less than that, you are. That’s true whether you’re in a high cost of living area or a low cost of living area.

Many people think that people in rural areas actually need much less than urban people in terms of income, but a lot of things besides housing take more of a rural family’s budget. Transportation costs can be higher, utility costs can be higher. So lots of things that rural families need are more expensive. If you just adjusted poverty for cost of living, which would mainly be housing, you wouldn’t capture that rural–urban difference.

Q:  Tell us a little bit about what contributes to rural poverty.

Curtis: One of the biggest issues in rural communities is economic development. Some of the main drivers in Wisconsin are actually underemployment and unemployment. When we look at the distribution of poverty across the state and different counties, we notice that it tends to be clustered in the northern part of the state, where there is less economic development. Specifically, we think about forest-related industry as well as the agricultural industry or extractive industries in general. When we have a community that might be solely dependent on a particular type of industry, if anything happens to that industry, whether it’s due to local reasons or, more likely, national or even global industrial reasons, then that community is susceptible to contractions.

Single female-headed households are another factor commonly associated with poverty, and we also see it in Wisconsin. Recent census data show that the proportion of single-father households also is increasing, and at a faster rate than single-mother households. Household structure is a factor in poverty because it identifies the number of potential earners. When you have one adult earner, by simple math, you can understand that that household is going to be making less than a dual-earner household.