Decades of upstate poverty persist across generations

Matt Martin
February 17, 2014

Anthropologist Janet Fitchen taught at Ithaca College in the 1970s and 80s. Before her death in 1995, Fitchen focused on life in the economically distressed villages of Upstate New York. Many of the factors contributing to rural poverty she found 30 to 40 years ago remain true today.

In her 1981 book, Poverty in Rural America, Janet Fitchen writes that the main forces driving poverty in rural Upstate New York are the emergence of large-scale agriculture in the West, the decline of industry in the Northeast, the loss of low-skill jobs, concentration of services in urban areas and expanding suburbs.

Today, those outside factors continue to dominate the explanation for Upstate New York’s economic slump. In her book, Fitchen focused on people in a village near Ithaca, its real name and location were changed.

But Joel Savishinsky, a professor at Ithaca College who worked with Fitchen, says pick a town and you’ll find a similar story.

“The communities had gotten poorer. There was much less infrastructure. There was less political support for community services," says Savishinsky. "So it wasn’t just a matter of say jobs and income, you know, the more obvious indicators of poverty, but the schools were underfunded. Local social services were not adequately supported. Because the communities were small, isolated and poor, they also exercised relatively little political leverage.”

Back when Fitchen was working, the issues up for debate were whether to build prisons in upstate, whether to use the land for solid waste disposal from urban areas and whether to start selling land to retirees or to turn farming communities into suburbs.

Fitchen grew up on a dairy farm in the Northeast. Savishinsky says that drove her to apply the techniques of cultural anthropology, which she had learned in villages in Mexico, to rural areas here.

And he says, if she were still working today, hydrofracking would be the issue.

“Janet, because of her whole farming background, always had a deep attachment to the land and she realized that rural people in the upstate of NY, even though the value of their farms had declined, were still very very attached to the land in their communities. They had been in their families for generations and I think she would have being very intrigued and concerned with how the prospect of fracking and the introduction of an extraction industry into areas like upstate NY would have been perceived by the members of those communities.”

Fitchen studied under Oscar Lewis, a professor at the University of Illinois who introduced the idea of a culture of poverty, the idea that poor people adapt to their circumstances in ways that span national boundaries.

Kai Shafft, a professor at Penn State’s Center on Rural Education and Communities, says Fitchen extended Lewis’ work by focusing on the lives of the rural poor.

“A lot of times when we do poverty research that involves crunching census numbers and that kind of thing, and she was really an ethnographer so she spent a lot of time in poor households in poor communities driving around, talking to people, and really understanding the experience of what it is to be poor," says Shafft. "And you can build a lifetime career by analyzing quantitative data and never come close to the kind of insights by doing the sort of work that she did."

In the end of her Poverty in Rural America, Fitchen offers some ideas for policies that might help the rural poor. She writes that: "The real tragedy of these small enclaves of marginality and poverty is that people are playing a game of life that has been structured in such a way that they are required to play but prevented from winning."

So much of people’s time was consumed with paying the rent and putting food on the table that they had little chance to think of other possibilities.

Tom Hirschl, a professor at Cornell’s Department of Development Sociology, says the safety net that’s supposed to lessen this burden has become outdated.

“I think the big policy failure is that we have a social security system that was based in 1935 ideas about the economy, where the labor market is ultimately going to take care of people and what we see happening is the labor market failing to provide enough economic distribution for large numbers of people."

Hirschl says the solutions being proposed, things like tax reductions for new businesses and manufacturers and ways to tweak unemployment benefits don’t get at the problem.

Fitchen writes near the end of Rural Poverty in America: It seems inescapable to conclude that what must be changed here is not the people who are poor and marginal but the situations that make them so.

And that, over the course of the past four decades, has  proven to be the hard part.