November 25, 2019

Tammy’s Story: Revealing Rural Poverty

author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

As Colby King recently blogged, the film People Like Us: Social Class in America is a useful tool to discuss class in sociology courses. I have used clips in various classes over the years, but the segment that has had the most impact has been the segment titled “Tammy’s Story.” Tammy lives in Waverly, Ohio, population 4,408; her segment does a particularly good job detailing the challenges of rural poverty.

The 2001 film first introduces Tammy Crabtree, a 42-year-old single mother with two sons. She is interviewed in a run-down trailer, and appears to have aged beyond her years (my students in image-conscious Los Angeles are always shocked when I mention her age after seeing the clip). Tammy has no means of transportation, so she walks to work at a Burger King ten miles away from home. She is filmed on this walk, which looks quiet and pastoral on first glance, but Tammy mentions that people shout nasty things to her, such as “trashy bitch” as she walks.

I grew up about 200 miles away from Tammy, in a suburb with nicely appointed single-family homes and neatly manicured lawns--another world. But one thing that we probably both experienced was the extremes of hot summers and cold, sometimes very snowy, winters. Walking to work means walking in rain, snow, and heat. In small rural areas, public transportation often does not exist, so not having a car means walking or depending on others who might be able to give a ride.

Limited transportation puts limits on the jobs available to rural residents. In 2000, a year before the film was made, Waverly’s median income for women was just under $21,000. Earning minimum wage, which was $5.15 an hour in Ohio in 2000, Tammy would have earned just over $10,000 a year (presuming a 40-hour work week 50 weeks a year, but it is unlikely she would have been given this many hours on a regular basis). That would put her below the Federal Poverty Threshold. Finding a better job would be difficult without transportation, particularly if there are few businesses around to hire workers in the first place.

Attending college is difficult without a car in rural areas too. And because Internet access is often slow or non existent, online classes are not always an option. In the 2001 film, one of Tammy’s sons told the filmmakers he thought about going to college, even though he wasn’t entirely clear about the process based on his description of obtaining a degree in law or architecture.

The filmmakers followed up with Tammy and her family in 2013. Her sons hadn’t attended college or even finished high school. Instead they had started families themselves and were struggling to maintain a steady income. Tammy had moved, but was still at Burger King and still earning minimum wage, which was $7.85 in Ohio at that time. She had suffered a heart attack but was still walking to work, although her walk was much shorter. Tammy still hoped to go to college to become a teacher someday.

Tammy’s story helps us see the often-hidden nature of rural poverty. She works hard, proudly refusing welfare, but has been unable to achieve much in the way of upward mobility. Some of the structural conditions of rural poverty can help us understand why.

The decline of economic activity in a community is no one individual’s fault, but is the result of large-scale economic changes. As small farmers in rural areas have a hard time competing with large-scale agribusinesses, one traditional economic engine has been less dependable for families. Likewise, the decline in other industries, like mining and manufacturing, sometimes impact small communities. In Waverly, after World War II a plant that produced enriched uranium created many job opportunities, and over the years produced a number of other products. But in 2001 the plant shut down.

“Brain drain” is another factor. Often a phenomenon in developing countries, “brain drain” can happen within the U.S. as well. Simply put, brain drain is what often happens when people leave rural or economically struggling areas to obtain more education, and once they do so, they find jobs elsewhere, leaving less-educated people behind.

This is understandable, as college-educated workers will likely find many more opportunities in metropolitan areas. Even if they hope to move back to a rural area, say to start their own business, they might find it would be difficult. Even if the cost of living is low, people might be reluctant to move somewhere that has few amenities (such as restaurants and shops), limited educational opportunities for their children, and few health care providers nearby.

The cycle of poverty can be particularly pernicious in rural areas, with limited public infrastructure and investment, and a lack of appeal to private investors, rural poverty is often hidden from public view. The U.S. Department of Agriculture gathers data on rural poverty, and you might be surprised to learn that non metro poverty (defined as rural towns or small cities that are not part of larger metropolitan areas) have a higher poverty rate than urban areas, especially in the south and west.

That’s why "Tammy’s Story" is so important; there are many other Tammys out there too.

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