Is it easier being poor in the sticks than in the city? No.
It's just easier to be forgotten.
DECEMBER 31, 1990
by Lee Smith
Picture Editor: Michele F. McNally

Christopher Wayne Grey of Sandgap, Kentucky (population: 500), is only 5, but his eyes are as old and haunted as an Appalachian hollow. What of his future? Poor children in America's backwoods are stuck, handicapped by an educational system that experts describe as "abysmal."

Let us now praise famous men. More than 50 years ago, FORTUNE commissioned writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans to memorialize the hardscrabble existences of Alabama tenant farmers; though their research never appeared in the magazine, it resulted in the classic book of that title. Since then, the lot of America's rural poor-men, women, and children- has improved greatly. Today few starve. Almost all have shelter of some sort, and life spans are considerably longer than in grandpa and grandma's day.

But as the photographs on the following pages show, hidden in the hollows of Appalachia, in makeshift villages along the Rio Grande, in shriveled industrial towns in Pennsylvania, on the back roads of Maine, and at the edge of cotton fields in Mississippi, the world that Agee and Evans uncovered endures. What's changed is that, for most Americans, the rural poor are even more remote and invisible than they were in the 1930s.

Ex-coal miner Harvey Flanery, 83, of McGee, Kentucky, believes he is suffering from black lung disease. In the mines, machines now do much of the work, a boon for health that has nonetheless left men generations younger than Harvey scraping for jobs. His wife, Callie, 80, still makes quilts like this one.

Now it is the urban poor who are the insistent, troubling presence, never long out of mind. Day begins with fresh reports of the overnight death toll in ghetto drug wars. The homeless in the streets block our path and demand our help.

Yet their country cousins are no better off. The poverty rate in rural counties, those without a town of 50,000, has climbed to 16%, almost as dismal as the inner cities' 18%. And their future is equally bleak. Despite scattered bright patches-rustic counties where tourism is flourishing, the handful of communities that have flowered around transplanted Japanese auto factories-much of the U.S. countryside is quietly and painfully dying.

That wasn't the case in the 1970s, when the long-term migration of jobs from the backwoods to the cities briefly reversed itself as corporations moved electronic assembly, apparel, and other low-tech plants to the sticks to take advantage of cheaper land and labor. For a decade rural manufacturing jobs grew at twice the rate of those in the city. But in the 1980s industry discovered even greater savings in Hong Kong, Mexico, and other foreign lands, and the backwoods boom went bust.

More than half the residents of Tunica, Mississippi, live below the poverty line. Among them are (from left to right) Felicia Grayer, 18, holding daughter Millie, 11 months; her cousin Clifton White, 14; and brother Bubba, 13.

With the world economy becoming ever more global, America's nearly nine million rural poor are stuck on the part turned away from the sun. Any policy to ease their plight must start with a basic principle: People, not places, matter. Compassion does not require that U.S. taxpayers save small towns for their own sakes, despite the sentimental view that such places are reservoirs of virtue. Sometimes they are. They can also be backwaters of misery.

Who are the rural poor? Put aside a misconception. The victims are not those farmers besieged by drought and debt who received so much attention from politicians, rock stars, and the media a few years back. "The world's biggest myth is that there are millions of poor farmers," says Agriculture Department economist Kenneth Deavers. Farm families, who make up only about 10% of the rural population of 23 million, are by and large doing well. Their average income reached an all-time high of $43,323 in 1989, aided by $11 billion in taxpayer subsidies.

The poor are farmhands, who never had any land to mortgage. They are also coal miners, sawmill cutters, foundry men, and Jacks of whatever trades are hiring. Or Janes. Women make up 45% of the rural work force. A "go-getter" in many places refers not to a striver but to a fellow who picks up his wife after her shift.

Walk with us through a few representative towns for a look at work and life at the bottom.

The Gigee sisters of Osceola, Pennsylvania -Deborah, 5, Daisy, 8, and Dixie, 6-have dressed up to pay a hospital call on their stepmother, Darlene, and newborn half-sister. The latest addition will bring the population of the Gigee mobile home to nine.

Belfast, Maine. President Bush's home in Kennebunkport is the Maine that outsiders know-the one where New England patricians summer in rambling, weathered shingle houses. But Maine has the lowest per capita income in the Northeast ($15,092 in 1988, $1,398 below the national average). About 130 miles up the coast from the Bush spread is Belfast, where a typical dwelling is a secondhand mobile home on a bare patch of ground.

Storms from way off shore have battered Belfast, a port town of 6,200, for two decades. During the 1970s rising fuel prices made it too expensive to heat chicken coops through the frigid winters and to import Midwestern feed grain. By the mid-1980s, the town's two big poultry processing plants, which once employed 1,100 people, had both shut down.

One of Belfast's few remaining enterprises is the Stinson Seafood Co., which cans herring pulled from local waters. For a visitor accustomed to entering a suburban plant through a colonnade of comely shrubs and trees that lead to a smart, polished reception lounge, Stinson comes as a shock. Alongside the entrance, an enormous dumpster full of ripening fish heads and tails waits to be carted off for fertilizer. A flock of seagulls almost hides the door.

Inside, several dozen women with kitchen shears, their hands rarely pausing, snip heads and tails off the fish and slap the bodies into cans. Base pay at Stinson is $4 an hour-a tad above minimum wage. An experienced packer raises her wages to $5 or $6 by filling 350 tins or more an hour. If she's lucky enough to clock 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, she can gross $12,000-still $600 below the waterline that defines poverty for a family of four.

But at two snips to a fish and four fish to a tin, earning $5 an hour requires some 20,000 scissor squeezes a day, a routine that over time can be crippling. Ruthie Robbins, 58, has been cutting fish for 20 years, makes $6 an hour tops, and suffers from chronic tendinitis. "The doctor could immobilize my arm," she says, "but then I couldn't work." Her arthritic husband earns a few extra dollars repairing lawn mowers.

Stinson's workers don't complain much. A steady job is not easy to find in Belfast. Across from Robbins sits her daughter Lisa, 19, who smiles but won't take time out to chat. Carrying on family tradition, she trims fish at a furious pace.

Classie Reining, 47 (left, with a grandson in her lap), presides over a Mississippi farm household that includes eight children, five grandkids-and a TV.

Tunica, Mississippi. About 30 miles south of Memphis where the cotton and soybean fields begin their long flat run down the Delta lies Tunica, which has long held the miserable distinction of being the poorest American county in the poorest American state.

More than half of Tunica's 8,100 people live below the poverty line. Two-thirds occupy what is euphemistically called substandard housing. That usually means an unpainted pine shack patched with asphalt tile and protected uncertainly by a rusted tin roof. Front porches rise and fall like waterbeds. Inside, the standard three small rooms may hold a cot, a stick or two of furniture, a hot plate, and a television set. Some dwellings have no running water, so occupants share an outdoor tap and privy with neighbors.

Tunica has one manufacturing plant, Pillowtex, where 300 workers earn $7 an hour on average making pillows and mattress coverings, primarily for Wal-Mart stores. But agriculture is still its mainstay.

Picking cotton is no longer cruel hand labor. It is hard but dignified. Black men pilot 16-foottall John Deere pickers that straddle two rows of cotton plants at once. Pay is $4.50 an hour with no fringe benefits, tolerable work if there were only more of it. One man on a machine can clear 400 acres in a week, a job that required 25 people or more a generation ago. At the peak, during the harvest from October through Christmas, Tunica's cotton and soybean industries employ only 1,000.

After that the county lapses into a coma. The pulse beats once a month, during the first week, when the welfare, Social Security, and other transfer payments that sustain half the population arrive.

Tunica's children look as lively as those anywhere. Better nutrition has been one of the true advances in recent decades, so physicians no longer routinely encounter the near starvation common before the 1960s War on Poverty. Give much of the credit to food stamps and to the federal WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program, which supplies pregnant women and preschool children with fruit juice, cereal, infant formula, and other protein.

In Donna, Texas, near the Mexican border, Sandra Mata, 20, rests her head on the shoulder of her mother, Juanita Martinez, 36. Both women have just had baby girls. Juanita's eldest son's 15-year-old wife is also pregnant. Santa's boyfriend abandoned her. Juanita's husband left four years ago.

But when these youths reach adolescence, their spirits start to die. "Their dreams are so small," says Tunica Chamber of Commerce president Lawrence Johnson. "A 16-year-old told me the other day that no one anywhere lives as well as the Cosbys on TV, not even white folks." Only one in three graduates from high school. Some leave town. Many more turn into the men who pop cans of Budweiser in the late morning and stare blankly from dusty stoops.

Las Milpas, Texas. All the wrecked cars and splintered lumber in North America eventually roll and tumble down to the strip of Texas that lies just above the Rio Grande from Brownsville to El Paso-or so it looks from the highway. Fields of mesquite and acres of vegetables alternate with vast junkyards that advertise: "We repair used tires, starters, windshield-wiper motors."

This frugal land is where migrant workers from Mexico spend their winters in hundreds of colonias, or unincorporated communities, whose collective population is roughly 140,000. Some are U.S. citizens; others are resident aliens with green cards. The rest have slipped across the border illegally. Whatever their status, they pick the California lettuce, Washington State strawberries, and Illinois broccoli that end up in the nation's refrigerators.

Life in the U.S. doesn't get any more meager than in Las Milpas. With a population of 8,800, it is larger than most other colonias but otherwise typical. The better homes of Las Milpas are made of sturdy cinder block, the worst are discarded school buses or huts a notch or two below even Tunica's wretched norm. When migrants return from their trek north, they push their broken '73 Mercuries and '75 Chevrolets into the welding shops for mending. Or junkman Antonio Hernandez buys the heaps for as little as $10 each and resells the serviceable parts for perhaps twice that.

God still gets his day in Tunica, Mississippi, where the Sunday morning ritual looks much as it did 50 years ago. Dressed up for services at St. Paul's Free Will Baptist Church are Antonio Pendelton, 7 (left), and Roosevelt Scott, 20.

Jesus Villagomez could not afford to fix his truck, so this past summer he had to skip the northern harvests, where he might have earned $200 or more a week. Instead he made about $30 a week picking vegetables on local farms. The walls of his home are rigged from odd pieces of plywood; the roof is a composite of broken tin and plastic sheeting held in place by a used tire.

In a space about the size of a secretary's cubicle, Villagomez lives with his wife and five children, ages 4 to 14. The parents sleep on a cot, the children on a mat ripped from the floor of a ruined car, amid a jumble of faded clothes, mud-encrusted boots, kitchen pots-and a small black-and-white TV. Even the poorest hovels of Las Milpas are electrified, as are 99.1% of all U.S. homes. But the crude "cowboy wiring," as it is known locally, that hooks the hut to a power line is a mixed blessing. Homes in the colonias burn with distressing frequency.

The Villagomez family shares with neighbors an outdoor water tap and a toilet that empties into an overworked septic tank. Even this far south the temperature in winter frequently falls below freezing, so the family huddles even closer than the hut demands. Can this life be better than the one they left in Mexico? "Yes," says Mrs. Villagomez without hesitation. "At school the children get an education-and also lunch."

The notion persists that even at its worst, rural poverty is preferable to the urban kind. That's doubtful. True, poor families in the country are more likely to have both mother and father in residence (53%, vs. 38% in the cities) and at least one of those parents is more likely to have a job (65%, vs. 54%). There is also far less crime. No drug dealers terrorize Belfast, Tunica, or Las Milpas with nightly turf battles.

Not much goes to waste among the resourceful poor of southern Texas, where tires are used to hold down roofs. For the Garcias of Hidalgo County a discarded refrigerator serves as a closet.

But alcohol is abundant, and cocaine use is increasing. Even little Tunica has an intersection known as Crack Corner. And guess what state leads the nation in marijuana production? Missouri, followed by Kentucky. Not all of this crop leaves for the big cities.

Nor is rural life necessarily healthier. Country folk have a slightly lower mortality rate than city dwellers. But they are more likely to suffer from chronic disease and disabilities. That's partly because much of their work is dangerous and also because they are less likely to be covered fully by Medicaid, which is jointly financed by federal and state governments. New York, for example, pays for physical therapy for all patients, Alabama only for some.

On balance, low wages probably stretch further in the country, but not much. The major edge is in housing, which is substantially cheaper, though often shoddier, than city quarters. A shabby three-room apartment in Belfast rents for less than $200 a month, compared with $450 in Boston's rundown Roxbury section. Shacks in Tunica go for less than $150 and hovels in Las Milpas for under $100. But even at those prices, three out of four poor rural families spend more than 30% of their income on shelter.

Food, surprisingly, is sometimes more expensive in the country. People without land don't grow their own, and groceries are pricey, driven up by the distance from distribution centers and lack of competition. On average, urban counties have 29 supermarkets each; their rural counterparts only four. A five-pound bag of Pillsbury all-purpose flour was recently selling for $1.39 at a Giant Food market in Washington, D.C., $1.59 at Junior's supermarket in Las Milpas, and $1.79 at the Piggly Wiggly in Tunica.

The sharp run-up in gasoline prices in recent months has been particularly burdensome for low-wage rural workers, who must commute over long distances in older cars that chug-a-lug fuel. At roughly minimum wage, four or five hours of toil a week go just to pay for the daily 50-mile round-trip routine in states like Kentucky North Carolina, Maine, and, of course, Texas.

With Jobs scarce in Belfast, Maine, the only employment divorced nurse's aide Tamy-Lu Riley, 26, can find is caring for her children, Roland, 5, and Kristina, 28 months.

But the great -and growing- disadvantage for country folk, even in the many places where the work ethic remains solid, is that opportunity is vanishing. Bad roads have long been a barrier to manufacturers. Now rural telecommunications systems that lag in everything from Touch-Tone dialing to fiber optics are discouraging service companies, which are also shipping overseas low-wage, low-skill jobs, such as key punching. As for rural education systems, "They are mostly abysmal," says Susan Sechler of Washington's Aspen Institute, which studies rural poverty.

Small wonder the brightest and most ambitious youngsters leave. "They see the flour barrel is empty and know it's time to go," says Robert Simmons, 44, who fled Tunica for Memphis, where he sells real estate. "The ones who stay behind are afraid to take a chance." As the local talent pool dries up, outsiders become even more reluctant to locate a new plant in Smallville.

Is there any way to break this vicious cycle? Market forces offer a few glimmers of hope. Las Milpas is likely to benefit from the prospering maquiladoras just across the Rio Grande, where U.S. and other foreign companies assemble cars, TV sets, and other goods for the American market. Those plants need warehouses and support facilities on the Texas side.

Recreation and retirement will keep some areas alive. The Ozarks and the Great Smoky Mountains already draw the elderly who are looking for inexpensive and safe quarters surrounded by pleasant scenery. As the population ages, those places could boom. Jobs in construction, resort management, and nursing would multiply.

William Galston, a senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, advises rural America to offer government services at lower cost than the cities. "If I were a small town," says Galston, "I'd look at the controversy about prison overcrowding in the population centers and offer my help."

Still, only a small fraction of the countryside will be required to fill those needs. For the rest, the best thing the government could do would be to persuade residents to migrate-not to a troubled megalopolis like New York, but to Columbus, Ohio; Jacksonville, Florida; Austin, Texas; and dozens of other promising smaller cities.

Young Texan Nestor Garcia, 6, brings an acrobat's flourish to the traditional country pastime of swinging on the outhouse door. Like four of his ten siblings, Nester is American born and a U.S. citizen. The older six, along with Mom and Dad, have permission to remain under the amnesty program.

That's not likely to happen. By temperament Americans are reluctant to write off regions as finished. Says Agriculture Department economist Robert Hoppe: "It's antigrowth, defeatist." Legislators are also unenthusiastic about programs that encourage constituents to clear out. A final problem: The less educated people are, the more attached they tend to be to a place.

But while government cannot force such folk to move on, it should at least stop giving them incentives to stay where they have no future. In Tunica, for example, Washington and the Mississippi state legislature have spent almost $7 million over the past several years constructing and subsidizing apartments. Humane though it is, this program merely houses people more comfortably in a place that is unlikely to ever generate enough jobs for them.

Instead, new policy initiatives should focus on helping individuals. Some already do, most notably the earned-income tax credit. This tax break is especially beneficial to the rural poor, who are more likely to be working than their city brethren. In the recent budget bill, Congress and the Bush Administration agreed to enrich the credit, so that in 1991 a wage earner who makes as much as $11,250 and has two dependent children will be eligible for a cash payment from the U.S. Treasury of up to $1,235. That's a 30% increase over 1990.

Why not take a similar approach to housing? Rather than build apartments in dead-end towns like Tunica, give people housing vouchers similar to food stamps they could exchange for rent. Recipients would then at least have the choice of using them in places where they might find work.

For all of human history, people have migrated from where opportunity has died to where it is being born. For those unable or unwilling to face such hard economic realities, government can do little more than offer more resources and more encouragement. "This isn't living, it's existing," says PamaLee Ashmore, a 32-year-old food cooperative manager, of her life in Belfast, Maine. She hopes her two children will move on-someday.