Methods: We conducted semi-structured telephone interviews (n = 38) with stakeholders living in high poverty school districts (n = 14). Stakeholders included faith-based leaders, local school leaders, and locally based Extension staff. This project was part of a larger statewide needs assessment to understand why some rural communities do not participate in the summer feeding program sponsored by the USDA. Interviews were recorded and transcribed.
Interview Guide: Stakeholders were asked a series of questions specifically about local poverty. They were asked if they perceived poverty to be a problem in their community. They were also asked to describe the level of poverty in the community, who the typical person is in poverty, and what contributed to poverty in their community.
Analysis: Three transcripts were initially coded in NVivo independently by two members of the research team. Disagreements on coding were reconciled to reach an acceptable 80% for interrater reliability.
Results: From stakeholder narratives, two themes emerged, both individual-level factors, related to how people perceive individuals in poverty: 1) family structure and 2) personal characteristics. For example, stakeholders often said that people in poverty had nontraditional family (e.g., grandparents raising children) structures making it difficult to maintain employment or meet their financial needs. Personal characteristics were often deficit based including low wage earners, problems with substance abuse, domestic violence, poor mental health, laziness and lack of skills. Stakeholders also described macro-level factors that perpetuate poverty. While some attributed poverty to generational ties and the inability of families to overcome their family history, others connected the local job, housing, and resource availability to the problem. For example, many of the stakeholders suggested that there are few adequate wage jobs available nearby, making it difficult for people to improve their financial health.
Conclusions and Implications: We found that stakeholders describe poverty in rural areas from a deficit-based definition, with poverty being grounded in the familial structure and personal characteristics. In conflict with this, stakeholders said that community and structural forces perpetuate local poverty, which distances the blame from individual attributes. Social workers in rural areas can use the results of this study to inform policy and organizational practice seeking to ameliorate poverty by changing the rhetoric among community members and tackling macro-level forces.