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Study reveals how rural North Carolinians survived the recession

A new UNC study reveals a critical web of resources that rural North Carolinians utilized during the “Great Recession” of 2007-09. Not only did many state residents use public assistance programs, they also capitalized on strengths often associated with rural communities in order to endure the severe downturn.

During the heart of the recession, the need for food assistance programs in North Carolina was its highest in 34 years. Low-wage jobs rapidly replaced high-wage jobs, and by 2010 the poverty rate had spiked to over 17%. State unemployment has remained higher for longer than in four previous recessions, and the state has yet to recover from the crisis.

Allison De Marco, an investigator at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, and an adjunct instructor at UNC’s School of Social Work, was the principal investigator for the “Employment Instability and Food Insecurity of Rural North Carolinians During the Recession” study. The study used information collected from FPG’s long-running Family Life Project to determine how the recession affected residents in three rural, low-wealth counties: Sampson, Wayne and Wilson.

The study focused on how the crisis disturbed parents’ work, affected the economic strain on families and their ability to put food on the table, and influenced the use of public assistance programs. She also examined how friends, neighborhoods, and other social supports shaped family experiences. Because the Family Life Project has been in the field since 2003, she was able to compare detailed snapshots of rural families before and during the recession.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service published the results of De Marco’s study online. Of the 653 families providing information, only 47.5% of respondents remained consistently employed during the downturn, and almost 23% were consistently unemployed. Nearly half faced at least one indicator of employment distress: a lost job, pay reductions, reduction in hours, a transition from permanent to temporary job status or a move to nonstandard working hours.

Not surprisingly, employment distress was related to higher levels of economic strain and the use of public assistance programs, particularly the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and unemployment insurance. Even during better economic climates, rural communities often face special nutrition challenges, and participation in food assistance programs typically is much higher in rural areas.

“Food costs are high, and food quality is limited,” said De Marco. “Supermarkets and healthy food are less accessible, and the burden of nutrition-related disease is greater. For these reasons, and because the proportion of income-eligible families is higher in rural areas, food assistance programs are vitally important in these communities.”

De Marco’s research looked at “food insecurity,” a measure of a family’s ability to put food on the table. During the recession, there was a significant rise in food insecurity. However, SNAP and Unemployment Insurance helped buffer families against such uncertainty. Over half of the people in De Marco’s study were enrolled in SNAP during the recession.

In addition to public assistance programs, rural North Carolinians also relied on a range of social supports. The Family Life Project’s researchers collected information about each resident’s impressions of his or her neighborhood; organized groups, such as churches, educational groups and sports teams; friends and families; closest partner; and “current life situation,” a broad indicator of all social supports.

De Marco found that during the recession, support from family members and closest partners helped alleviate food insecurity, as did the sum total of all social supports. In addition, the support of the community was a significant buffer against the economic strain that families suffered.

These findings suggest that while residents of the three counties in the study relied on public assistance programs to survive, they also capitalized on strengths indicative of rural communities. Rural areas often provide for stronger connections to religious institutions, more access to extended family, and a greater sense of community—the very sorts of social supports many families needed to endure the state’s economic crisis.

“This knowledge will enable policymakers to make more informed decisions about how to modify policies and programs to better match the situations in these communities,” she said.

According to De Marco, many rural communities would benefit from asset development programs, which emphasize financial literacy, matched savings and home ownership. Additionally, more emphasis on workforce training programs, training for displaced workers, and economic initiatives that address limited job opportunities can help to alleviate many of the factors that contribute to high levels of employment distress in rural North Carolina.

“It’s also important to remember that rural communities have strengths,” says De Marco, a former social worker who has spent years on the ground with families. “Community-building strategies can increase access to social supports and bring rural residents to existing public programs, which were critical during the recession.”

Her next project will focus on how the recession has affected children in rural North Carolina.

Story: UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute