Rural poverty arises out of factors of rural society, rural economy and rural political systems. A widely shared assumption is that rural poverty in the modern era operates on somewhat different dynamics than class-based urban poverty, although social science analyses since the 'rediscovery ' of poverty in the 1960s have often tended to conflate the two. Marxism, unlike other contemporary theories of poverty, tends to write off the rural problem without further examination. (Marx referred to "the idiocy of rural life.")
One of the characteristics of considerable portions of contemporary urban poverty is high turnover rates: Many people who are poor at some point in their life - often childhood and adolescence, young adulthood or old age - may not be poor at other times. Likewise, urban communities, areas and regions may rise and fall as urban, industrial and post-industrial conditions change. By contrast, persistence - continuity and consistency over time - is one of the definitive characteristics of rural poverty.
Many rural areas in Appalachia have had higher than average rates of poverty for many decades, and some areas in the rural South have had very high rates of poverty since their agricultural economies were devastated in the Civil War. Likewise, many rural Indian/Native American reservations have had among the highest rates of poverty found anywhere in American life for many decades.
According to the Economic Research Service, 18% of nonmetropolitan counties are characterized by persistent poverty, as opposed to 4% of metropolitan counties. Persistently Poor Counties are those that have had poverty rates above 20% in every decade from 1970 to 2000.
One of the effects of this is that rural poverty in the U.S. is a substantially regional phenomenon. Nonmetropolitan counties in the South have slightly more than 40 percent of the U.S. nonmetro population in the 2000 census, while 82% of the nonmetropolitan persistently poor counties are in the South. Persistently poor counties in the South are most prevalent in northern New Mexico, the southern border counties of Texas, along the Mississippi River from Illinois to Louisiana, throughout Mississippi, south Alabama and Georgia, and the coastal Carolinas, and central Appalachia, particularly in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Other large regions of persistently poor counties are found in the Dakotas, Montana and Alaska.
The persistence of poverty in rural areas throughout the world has been one of the most consistent focal points of international development efforts since the end of World War II.
The Dyson thesis: technology and rural poverty
In 2007, the retired Princeton University physicist Freeman Dyson put forth an interesting and innovative interpretation of rural poverty world wide that ties the problem and a possible solution to different technologies. Writing with the contemporary slums of cities through the world, and impoverished rural regions with which they are associated by urban migration, Dyson notes:
- Rural poverty is one of the great evils of the modern world. The lack of jobs and economic opportunities in villages drives millions of people to migrate from villages into over-crowded cities. The continuing migration causes immense social and environmental problems in the major cities of poor countries. The effects of poverty are most visible in the cities, but the causes of poverty lie mostly in the villages. What the world needs is a technology that directly attacks the problem of rural poverty by creating wealth and jobs in the villages. A technology that creates industries and careers in the villages would give the villagers a practical alternative to migration. It would give them a chance to survive and prosper without uprooting themselves.
He places this perspective in the larger view of world urban history and archeology and what he terms the differences between gray and green technology:
- The shifting balance of wealth and population between villages and cities is one of the main themes of human history over the last ten thousand years. The shift from villages to cities is strongly coupled with a shift from one kind of technology to another. I find it convenient to call the two kinds of technology green and gray. The adjective ‘green’ has been appropriated and abused by various political movements, especially in Europe, so I need to explain clearly what I have in mind when I speak of green and gray. Green technology is based on biology, gray technology is based on physics and chemistry.
Green technology, Dyson asserts, was basic to the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago in the domestication of plants and animals, the invention of agriculture, breeding of livestock, and household production of such items as clothing, cheese, wine, etc. Gray technology arrived later in the forging of bronze and metals, wheels, paved roads, ships, war chariots, swords, and eventually guns & bombs. About 5000 years ago, gray technology gave birth to cities and also transformed agriculture gradually with steel plows, and by the 20th century farm implements and equipment that resulted in the transfer of rural wealth from farm-based households to urban-based corporations.
Taking a cue from the environmental movement Dyson concludes that perhaps a shift away from gray technologies back toward green, biologically based technology would also contribute to ending the problem of rural poverty worldwide.
(Dyson's comments, quoted here from a New York Review of Books essay, were part of the Page-Barbous lectures he delivered in 2004.)