One of the most difficult things I have had to do in my life (and still today) is to explain to people in authority what it is like to live in rural areas. It is not because people are hard hearted, or are unwilling to listen, but the vast expanses, the hidden poverty ( in many cases), the difference in cultures and history make an explanation to those in charge very difficult.
I am not just talking about government. Folks who have no experience dealing with rural people in the business world, social services, and religious organizations sometimes appear to be unknowing of over 25% of the population of our country. When seeing remarks about farmers, as the only tenants of rural America, I can only gnash my teeth and sometimes fire back an email or phone someone to tell them that agriculture is an increasing small part of rural America. Rural people are in all sorts of occupations- extractive industries ( coal, oil, natural gas, etc.), manufacturing, small business enterprise and all of the things one might expect from any area.
Some of the major differences are the geographic isolation, discrimination based on zipcode, lack of medical and social services, higher prices for goods ( only real estate cost less), and other services. I one time did a market basket study and found out that the cost of food in suburban areas was cheaper than in the heart of the city and rural areas. Funny, aren’t the suburbs the places where the wealthier live. For many people that last few sentences seem counter intuitive. They did to me when I first lived in a rural area and discovered that my car insurance had risen 25% because of the more dangerous roads, the lack of lighting and the lack of close by hospitals. We do know that the most dangerous occupations do not reside in the metro areas. Farming and mining are the most dangerous and that is what many rural people do for a living.
When Jim Carroll of the Erie Times wrote a long series of articles about rural poverty in Pennsylvania in the 1980’s ( at my behest), I was shocked to learn that there were folks called “igloo people” living in large ammunition boxes left over from World War Ii. They lived in Crawford County below Erie. Rural poverty is generally unreported in large metro newspapers. We are not talking about the rural South alone. We are talking about rural people all over the place.
When I worked at the I.U. in Clarion in the 1980’s, I was constantly on the defensive about our 3,000 square mile area. Our resources were limited and the central authorities treated us as if we were located in suburban Philadelphia. It was almost like pulling a locomotive uphill just to get someone to understand that we were not like suburban or city areas. Central authorities tend to understand that kind of living. Schools of education, business and management tend to train young people how to exist in areas with hospitals, doctors, social services, transportation and governmental services.
I grew very frustrated and vowed to make people in high places understand that we were different. We could not hire a 100,000 dollar suit to write a sewage grant, or become more entrepreneurial when we had 27% unemployment, or had not public transport. The following story is not apocryphal. Sometime in the early 1980’s, there was a proposal created by the Bureau of Special Education in the Department of Education. On its face, it appeared to be a good hearted attempt at helping special education children. The basic premise was to keep handicapped children from spending so much time on the school bus. There were a number of reasons for this that related to individual handicapping conditions.
I was certain that those who promulgated this rule saw only positive sides when they ordered that no special education child could spend more than one hour on a school bus going to a from school. At first reading, I thought that I had not interpreted the proposal correctly. I read it again and became violently ill at the thought.
Many of our students in our area spent more than an hour on the bus and that included ALL children not just special ed. kids. I could not fathom that someone in Harrisburg did not pick this up and say “That’s impossible to do.” I put the proposal down and called Dr. Gary Makuch, the Director of Special Education for the Commonwealth of Education. Gary was a very nice ( and existential) kind of guy who I had gotten to know through the years.
He answered my call and I expressed my concerns to him in a short and pithy bunch of words. Gary said that we might be able to ameliorate the situation by using public transportation. At that moment, I realized that I was speaking to someone who had no idea of what I was saying. I did not want to explain to him in more than a few words how impossible that would be. I just said, “Gary, There are no Subways in Lickingville.”
I believe that Gary understood at once. The proposal disappeared from view within a few days and we went on with our merry affairs. However, my response to Gary had some unintended consequences. Evidently, the expression caught on with a number of people in Harrisburg and when lobbying for rural schools it was sometimes used to get me to respond. It did, however, cause me to write a little book about rural areas and a chapter in a book on education.
Have we succeeded in getting folks to understand any better? I believe that there is a movement in our country to attend to the needs of rural places. The new proposed reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, will have codicils that will attend to the needs of rural schools. Someone is listening.


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