Monday, September 2, 2013

Rural poverty calls us to remember who feeds us

By Bishop Paul D. Etienne

When many think of poverty, they imagine crumbling, boarded up buildings, unsafe streets and failing schools with metal detectors at the entryways. Movies and television shows perpetuate these images. Meanwhile, rural life conjures up images of rolling hills, fields of grain and a simple life. Yet, when Robert Kennedy went on his “poverty tour” in 1968 he found the most extreme poverty in rural America. Unfortunately, that reality is still true today.

According to the Department of Agriculture, rural poverty is over two percentage points higher than urban poverty. This poverty is more pervasive and persistent: of all the counties that experienced deep spells of poverty over a 20-year span, over 88 percent are rural. The consequences of this poverty are devastating. Over 3 million rural households are hungry. Many of these families were recently or still are the agricultural backbone of our country. Sadly, this means many of the very people who plant, harvest and prepare our food cannot afford to feed themselves and their families.

At the root of this problem is human labor. As John Paul II pointed out, work is “probably the essential key, to the whole social question” (Laborem Exercens, no. 20). In the case of rural communities, the decline of agriculture has led to a lack of decent work. Today, about two percent of all jobs are agricultural, a significant decline from only a few decades ago, when the bounty of thriving American farms was the envy of the world.

The jobs vacuum in rural communities has been filled, in many instances, with low-paying or dangerous jobs that do not pay enough to support a family. Some industries have taken advantage of the economic desperation of rural communities by exploiting workers. For instance, many poultry and slaughterhouse workers face unsanitary working conditions, prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals and substances, and long shifts away from their families. Circumstances like these are beneath their human dignity.

In this year’s Labor Day statement, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, challenges everyone to work together to build a just economy that truly honors and respects all. One of the vital ways we can do this is supporting the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), which ensures vulnerable people and families do not go hungry. For rural communities, SNAP plays a crucial economic development role as well. While ensuring that families are able to go out and buy the food they need, SNAP becomes a source of revenue for local businesses in time of economic strain.

Jesus calls us to feed “these least brothers of mine” (Mt 25). Individuals and churches donate time and money to combating hunger across the country, but the need is great. The government, through nutrition assistance like SNAP, has a role to play in meeting this basic need for food. In the overall effort to combat the scandal of poverty, rural communities need to be remembered. Not only should we help them meet their basic needs through charity and a sense of appreciation for who produces our food, but we must also demand justice and seek to rebuild our economy so that people have access to living wages and good jobs in every community.

The author is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming and president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

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