New Book Examines Changes in Rural Societies and Communities
by Joe Savrock (April 2011)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Rural societies have undergone dramatic changes in recent decades as a result of urbanization, metropolitan expansion, technological innovation, economic restructuring, and changing policy regimes. While these changes present challenges to the people living in rural areas, they offer opportunities as well.
Kai A. Schafft, associate professor of educational leadership with affiliate faculty status in rural sociology, has co-authored a new book with David L. Brown, professor at Cornell University. Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century: Resilience and Transformation (Polity Press, 2011) examines the contemporary social, political, and economic context of rural people and communities in the United States while analytically embedding that context within a broader global comparative perspective.
“This book synthesizes the broad range of research focused on rural development and community change,” said Schafft, who is director of Penn State's Center on Rural Education and Communities. “Our hope and intention is that this volume can become a key text for students, scholars, and policy makers interested in rural people and places.”
Rural People and Communities in the 21st Century provides a comprehensive and in-depth look at how rural societies in the United States have persisted and changed over time in the face of ongoing macro-transformations. In doing this, the authors examine topics including urbanization, community theory, local institutions, natural resources, agriculture, rural economies, and rural policy. They also discuss how rural people and communities have helped shape these transformations.
For example, Brown and Schafft discuss change and restructuring within the agricultural sector over the preceding several decades, including the dramatic decline of the family farm. Yet, as the authors note, there has been an emergence of alternative and small-scale agriculture—including farm-to-school efforts—as a response to large-scale corporate agriculture, the disconnect many people feel to the food system, concerns about food safety and healthful eating, and the desire to retain small- and medium-sized family farms.
On the other hand, the persistence of high poverty in rural areas continues to pose a long-term nationwide challenge, especially in regions such as Appalachia, the southern Black Belt, and the border regions of the Southwest. The book points out that poverty is prevalent in central cities as well, but urban neighborhoods receive much more attention from policy makers. Even though rural areas have a higher rate of poverty, they comprise only 17 percent of the nation’s population—a much lower percentage than in the cities.
“The disparities between urban and rural poverty were narrowed greatly in the 1960s with the War on Poverty, in large part due to the implementation of social policies targeting those most in need,” notes Schafft. “However, since that time, a steady gap between metro and nonmetro poverty levels has remained. This partially is a consequence, one could argue, of rural poverty’s relative ‘invisibility’ within policy arenas and among the general public.”
Rural poverty plays a role in the policies of local school districts, whose administrators are faced with challenges in balancing their operating budgets. Often, districts turn to school consolidation as a means not only to strengthen fiscal stability, but also to give students improved access to educational resources. However, as the book points out, school consolidations can actually raise operating costs. In West Virginia, for example, a widespread consolidation trend during the 1990s resulted in a 16 percent increase in maintenance and utility costs.
Brown and Schafft conclude their book with a discussion of rural policy. They argue that by contrast to the European Union, comprehensive rural policy in the U.S. is distinctly lacking. This, they argue, is to the detriment of rural people and communities in the United States given the rural change that has taken place over the past few decades—and which they say will undoubtedly continue through the 21st century—as a consequence of a variety of factors including demographic shifts, economic transformations, climate change, and changing resource demands.
“Large-scale social, environmental, and economic change will have significant impacts on rural people and places in the 21st century,” explains Schafft. “This book, we hope, will provide a resource for students, academics, and policy makers to think about what these changes mean for the well-being of rural communities and, in turn, how we might best respond through education, policy, and rural development practice.”