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Rural America Is Quietly 'Hurting,' Educators Warn

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Manhattan, Kan.--Rural America is quietly sinking deeper into a state marked by poverty, illiteracy, substance abuse, and delinquency, while the nation's attention remains riveted on its urban centers, rural educators and human-services providers at a recent conference here said.

About 400 educators, human-services professionals, and officials of religious organizations gathered at the 10th annual "working with families conference" late last month to plan strategies to grab national attention for problems in their rural communities.

"We've got to get the message out that we in rural America are hurting," said Anthony P. Jurich, a professor of human development and family studies at Kansas State University.

Many of the nation's social ills--including the high incidence of substance abuse, "latchkey children," teen pregnancy, and school dropouts--are commonly perceived as solely urban phenomena, participants at the conference, sponsored by the family center at Kansas State, said.

The truth is, they said, the problems are often worse in America's heartland.

Rural Children at Risk

One out of every four children in the rural United States lives below the poverty line, Charles A. Smith, a human-development specialist at Kansas State, told conference participants. That compares to one out of five youngsters in metropolitan areas, he said.

In 1986, he added, almost one-third of all farm households were poor.

To underscore the plight of rural children, conference participants also pointed to a study of at-risk students by the National Rural Development Institute released last May.

According to the study's findings, rural children fared worse than their urban and suburban counterparts in 34 out of 39 "at risk" categories, including the incidence of substance abuse, sexual activity, teen preganancy, crime, and child abuse.

Specifically, the study showed that 12.3 percent of nonhandicapped, rural elementary-school students suffer from depression, low self-esteem, or have attempted suicide. In urban schools, it is 10 percent; in suburban schools, 8.5 percent.

About 17.7 percent of nonhandicapped, rural high-school students are substance abusers, compared with 10.1 percent in nonrural districts. For handicapped students, the disparities were worse.

Rural educators at the conference said they are also worried that the social and economic pressures confronting rural schoolchildren are leading to the death of many of the nation's small towns as young people flock to the cities in search of opportunities that have dried up in their hometowns.

Between 1981 and 1987, Mr. Jurich said, 594,000 farms went out of business, victims of low commodity prices and high debts they were unable to pay. From 1986 to 1987, almost 1 million small-town residents fled to the big cities, he said, adding that the migration is projected to in8crease in the 1990's.

"There's a perception in the cities that farmers are rich," he said, "not middle-class, but rich."

A 'Nicer Poverty'

Even among those who acknowledge that poverty exists in rural America, Mr. Jurich said, it is seen as a "nicer poverty," lacking the bleakness of inner-city decay.

Such a perception has skewed the distribution of human services, including education programs, away from areas where they are most needed, said J. Dennis Murray, a psychology professor and coordinator of the Rural Services Institute of Mansfield (Pa.) University.

For instance, Mr. Jurich said, there is only one marriage-and-family therapist for the entire western half of Kansas.

"If you define oppression as degradation and abuse stemming from who or what an individual is," Mr. Murray told conference participants, "there is oppression of rural people in the United States."

School-age children are increasingly vulnerable to the economic and social decay around them, conferees said. Low self-esteem has blossomed from negative media images of rural life and a collapsing economy, several human-service professionals at the conference said.

"There's an association of rural with unsophisticated or dumb," Mr. Murray said, "like 'Mayberry, r.f.d.,' or 'Green Acres,' or 'The Beverly Hillbillies."'

Schoolchildren have begun to internalize those images, he said, noting that many have developed inferiority complexes that keep them from pursuing higher education.

Compounding the problem, he said, is the fact that parents often acquiesce to low standards, hoping that a failed education will keep their children from leaving the farm.

The family problems that have arisen from the economic crisis in farming have added to the deterioration, said Judith Bortner Heffernan, director of the Heartland Network for Town and Rural Ministries at the University of Missouri.

Divorces, alcoholism, and suicides among parents have given children license to behave in a similar fashion.

A typical excuse for drinking given by members of her support group for teenagers is, she said, "'There's nothing to do in this town but get drunk, and that's all Mom and Dad do anyway."'

Task of Providing Services

The task of remedying social problems in rural settings is more difficult in some ways than in urban settings, less difficult in others, conference participants said.

Isolation created by the vast distances separating farm neighbors contributes to stress and complicates the delivery of human services, said Mary Ann Jennings, a training consultant at the national resource center for youth services at Tulsa, Okla., which is affiliated with the University of Oklahoma.

When human services exist in small towns, she added, residents are reluctant to use them for fear that the whole town will know.

But tight-knit rural communities often have informal resources that urban centers do not always have, like churches and clubs to which al4most everyone belongs.

To address the problem of latchkey children in rural Wisconsin, Dave Riley, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, said he tapped into that informal sector.

After surveying 18,000 families in 28 rural counties in 1989, Mr. Riley found that nearly half the 3rd graders were without adult supervision before or after school.

When confronted with the statistics, he said, 15 of the 28 counties set up programs to address the problem.

The project is being duplicated in Nebraska.

Addressing Problems

Other projects are cropping up to address rural-education problems.

A survey conducted by the Rural Clearinghouse for Education and Development at Kansas State found 3,300 literacy programs operating in rural areas across the country, according to Jacqueline Spears, the clearinghouse's co-director.

Real Enterprises, a nonprofit corporation in North Carolina, has recently received its second installment of Ford Foundation funding to expand its small-town economic-development projects.

The projects, run through local high schools, help students set up businesses that give them hands-on experience while expanding their community's economic base, Ms. Spears said. (See Education Week, June 14, 1989.)

But Mr. Jurich stressed that the rural- and urban-education communities must attack the problems of economic development and self-esteem before they arise.

"Educators have the opportunity and the obligation to teach the wonderful complexity of the life we lead," he concluded.

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