The State of Rural Poverty

By Tammy Slater, President and CEO, Goodwill Industries of Greater Nebraska (Grand Island)
Goodwill® promotes independence and access to the community, aids in job security, supports goals of wellness and recovery, facilitates group classes to teach responsible behavior, and provides safe and affordable housing. Local Goodwill organizations have an assigned territory, and we focus services within our geographic area in response to our communities’ needs. The domains that tend to need the most assistance and support are rural areas.
Many rural areas have a population of 1,000 people or less, and unfortunately service providers like Goodwill may never have a location in a county of this size. However, Goodwill organizations in surrounding communities reach out to individuals and families to provide a tailored approach so that each person can benefit from case management and an individualized plan for the services they need to achieve success.
What are some of the challenges of poverty in a rural town?

  • Stable housing
  • Adequate nutrition
  • Effective health care
  • Reliable transportation
  • Quality child care
  • Appropriate education
  • Job training

The lack of education affects the advancement and achievements of life in a major way. It can hinder and/or halt job security. The lack of a town’s educational statistics as a whole can deter a boon in its economic development, which ultimately decreases its job market. For example, in Grand Island, Nebraska, 1 in 10 adults does not have a high school diploma, 3 in 10 have only a high school diploma and another 1 in 4 has only some college experience but with no degree. Many rural states rely on one or two industries to employ those who manage to complete a degree, but shut downs and job cuts are all too common even for those who obtain a degree.
To establish relevant services in rural (or urban or suburban) communities, each autonomous local Goodwill organization must understand the community’s assets and needs and how it can financially support service delivery. Many of the families we serve have complex needs and require comprehensive services (comprehensive benefits planning, behavioral health day services and behavioral health employment program) to help them stabilize, keep a place to live, be safe and have the basic necessities of life. Goodwill cannot do our work alone. All across America, Goodwill organizations continuously partner with state and local agencies to address the needs of rural populations. Many of these community partners include businesses, nonprofits, community-based organizations, places of faith, and state and local agencies.
Though partnerships are crucial to success, it is tough in rural areas because there are not many community organizations. The rural towns that are fortunate enough to have a community center are often finding new ways to reach the citizens because for them, asking for help may feel shameful. Our strategy as an organization is to be visible, available and aware of what our neighbors are facing. We have discovered that the best way to connect people with our services is neighbor-to-neighbor or word-of-mouth “advertising.”
For example, in 2014, Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida (Fort Myers) launched an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)-compliant modified Winnebago Adventurer recreational vehicle that travels through rural areas twice per week. It partnered with local organizations so people can have a place close to home for financial literary services, health screenings, employment services, help with educational financial aid applications, access computer workstations, internet access and professional support.
Serving rural residents impacted by poverty is an opportunity and a challenge. While many of the challenges are similar for urban and rural areas facing poverty, the solutions can be significantly different. Skilled team members with partner coalitions, including local, state and community-based organizations and agencies, use these community asset-mapping and needs assessments to focus on essential actions that can help reduce poverty in rural areas across the country. And, to successfully move people out of poverty, we need more people equipped with the necessary skills and more job opportunities.