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Strong Rural Communities Need Systemic Solutions

Embargoed until Contacts: Linda O'Neal
May 1, 2003 or Pam Brown
Attachments Phone (615) 741-2633

Southern rural communities are strong, but community solutions are needed to address their problems, according to a study released today.

The study, The Rural South: Listening to Families in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee, drew from focus groups across the three states and the best available data to present a picture of rural communities in the three states.

Healthy rural areas are central to Tennessee's economic well-being," said Linda O'Neal, executive director of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, which collaborated to produce the report. "Rural areas supply manpower, energy, agriculture, timber, mining, and raw materials. They are also central to the vision we have of this state and nation and our values. We must all work together to strengthen these struggling rural communities in Tennessee.

The problems and solutions for rural and non-rural families are systemic and interconnected, the report stated. From within rural communities, visionary citizens and leaders can support economic opportunities by nurturing small businesses and reviving main streets. Public policies and investments that support workforce and job development, home ownership and lifelong learning can assist in leveling the playing field for rural families.

Each community is unique, but Southern families are strong and supportive, according to the report. However, their communities do not have the jobs they need to provide for their children's future. Lack of jobs was a consistent theme in intensive focus group discussions and interviews with more than 150 rural residents in 12 communities (including Grundy, Hancock, Houston and Lake counties). Manufacturing jobs have been lost, as plants have moved because of national trade and tax policies, leaving small towns that may never fully recover. People continue to feel connected to these communities and frequently commute long distances for work, education, training and even basic shopping. In a third of Tennessee counties more than 10 percent of workers travel more than one hour to get to work.

In most rural counties in Tennessee only 10 percent or less of the adult population has attained a bachelor's degree. The lack of high paying jobs leads to a 'brain drain." One respondent said, "Even with a degree you can end up in the mines.

Schools and churches are tremendous resources in their communities, but they have limited means, residents report. Child care and out-of-school programs are two key supports needed for rural children. Parents worry that without positive activities, children turn to drugs. Their fears are all too real: juvenile drug abuse arrests in rural counties of the three states went up almost 50 percent between 1994 and 2000, but only 1 percent in urban areas.

The report was produced by the Southern Rural Family Strengthening Collaboration. The Collaboration, made up of the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, Kentucky Youth Advocates and Voices for Alabama's Children, was funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT project.

The report is available on the TCCY website at www.tennessee.gov/tccy/kc-rp-04.htm. For more information, contact TCCY at (615) 741-2633.

The Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth is an independent agency created by the Tennessee General Assembly. Its primary mission is to advocate for improvements in the quality of life for Tennessee children and families.

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Rural Families Face Dilemmas

Everyone in the community watches out for each other's children,
but there are few after-school activities available.

There is a sense of safety for residents in Southern rural communities,
yet they recognize the increasing allure of drugs for teens.
They enjoy the quiet seclusion of their homes,
but must travel great distances to buy necessities at discount prices or to find medical or dental care.

Everybody knows everybody,
but if you're not from the "right family," you may not have access to jobs, services, or supports.

Many believe that the cost of living is more affordable in rural areas,
but lower wages negate the more affordable aspects of rural life.

Even if parents or youth could pursue higher education or skill building,
jobs are not available that would allow them to remain in their home areas.

Parents want their children to better themselves through education,
but do not want to see them leave family connections behind in order to get jobs.