Worlds Apart: Why Poverty Persists in Rural America

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This compelling book takes us to three remote rural areas in the United States to hear the colorful stories of their residents-the poor and struggling, the rich and powerful, and those in between-as they talk about their families and work, the hard times they've known, and their hopes and dreams. Cynthia M. Duncan examines the nature of poverty in Blackwell in Appalachia and in the Mississippi Delta town of Dahlia. She finds in these towns a persistent inequality that erodes the fabric of the community, feeds corrupt politics, and undermines institutions crucial for helping poor families achieve the American Dream. In contrast, New England's Gray Mountain enjoys a rich civic culture that enables the poor to escape poverty. Focusing on the implications of the differences among these communities, the author provides powerful new insights into the dynamics of poverty, politics, and community change. The author conducted 350 in-depth interviews over five years and examined ten decades of U.S. Census data to unravel the ways poverty is perpetuated. Duncan unmasks the lack of basic democracy in poor places, but she also illustrates how a large middle class that supports public investment can make antipoverty and development programs work.

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Editorial Reviews

The description of rural poverty in Worlds Apart are interesting and read almost like a novel. Sociologist Duncan compiles accounts of residents who describe their lives in three rural areas: a coal-mining town in Appalachia, a cotton-plantation town in the Mississippi Delta, and a mill town in northern Maine. . . . All levels.
Thomas Bokenkotter
The debate goes on, and Cynthia Duncan's Worlds Apart is must reading for anyone involved. Those who advocate the need for greater sense of social responsibility in our attitude toward the poor will find much support in this study.
— (America)
Jim Sessions
This is a good book. It is imminently readable, filled with rich and revelatory interviews with both 'haves' and 'have nots' in 'Blackwell,' a coal county in Appalachia; 'Dahlia,' an agricultural plantation county of the Mississippi Delta; and 'Gray Mountain,' a mill town in northern New England. . . . . [Duncan] pursue[s] the ways in which poverty is perpetuated and what can be done about it.
— (Appalachian Journal)
Linda Simon
[An] absorbing, provocative book. . . . In her lavish use of direct quotes and firsthand observations, skillfully interwoven with commentary and historical and economic background, Duncan achieves an authenticity and believability rare in academic work, which make one take her seriously. . . . For an examination of persistent rural poverty in America, Worlds Apart is excellent.
—(World & I)
David Brown
Analyzing data from over 350 in-depth interviews conducted during 1990-95, Cynthia Duncan provides a vivid and highly nuanced description of life in rural America's poor communities. . . . I am enthusiastic about this book, and I recommend it highly.
— (American Journal of Sociology)
Duncan combines theoretical sophistication with the gravity of real-life stories to tell of the absence of democratic processes in these areas, a main reason why the cycle of poverty continues. . . . Duncan weaves a narrative that should cause us profound national embarrassment over how, in a land of plenty, so many can have so little.
Kirkus Reviews
University of New Hampshire sociologist Duncan (Rural Poverty in America, not reviewed) looks at the social relations and political and economic institutions that perpetuate poverty in rural America. "Blackwell" (place names have been changed) in Appalachia and "Dahlia" on the Mississippi Delta, are two of the poorest areas in the US. Duncan studied the lives of the residents of these places, and what she found was communities where the "haves" and "have nots" inhabit different worlds within historically structured, rigid class and, in Dahlia, race divisions. In both places local elites—coal company operators in Blackwell, plantation owners in Dahlia—control not only the economic life of the community but the political life as well. Their power is near absolute, and they use public institutions, including schools, to further their own interests and punish those who cross them. The poor remain "powerless, dependent, and do not participate" in civic life. A kind of stasis sets in where the poor see no option but to give way to those who have always had power, and the powerful resist change as it may threaten their status. In contrast, "Gray Mountain," in northern New England, is a town with a strong civic culture based on a blue-collar middle class that has created public institutions—from little league to effective schools—that serve all in the community. Duncan, through in-depth investigation and interviews, concludes that only a strong civic culture, a sense among citizens of community and the need to serve that community, can truly address poverty. Yet class and race relations in places like Blackwell and Dahlia preclude such a sense of community. Her answer, goingagainst so much conventional wisdom, is federal government intervention, especially to create equitable school systems where they do not exist. Only such intervention, Duncan asserts, will give the poor the knowledge of alternatives, the hope they now lack. Moving and troubling. Duncan has created a remarkable study of the persistent patterns of poverty and power. (The book's foreword is by Robert Coles.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300084566
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2000
  • Edition description: Older Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,482,841
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Table of Contents

Map of Northern New England, Central Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta
List of People Profiled
ch. 1 Blackwell: Rigid Classes and Corrupt Politics in Appalachia's Coal Fields 1
"Good Rich People" and "Bad Poor People" 3
Blackwell Yesterday: Developing Appalachia's Coal Fields 11
The Families That Run Things 17
The Politics of Work in the Mountains 30
Blackwell's Have-Nots: Scratching a Living Up the Hollows 39
Blackwell's Haves: The Good Life on Redbud Hill 53
Bringing Change to Blackwell 59
ch. 2 Dahlia: Racial Segregation and Planter Control in the Mississippi Delta 73
Dahlia's Two Social Worlds 74
Work in Dahlia: Creating and Maintaining the Plantation World 90
Class and Caste in the Delta 96
White Planters, Politicians, and Shopkeepers 111
Leadership in the Black Community: The Old and the New "Toms" 123
Dahlia's Emerging Middle Class 140
ch. 3 Gray Mountain: Equality and Civic Involvement in Northern New England 152
A Blue-Collar Middle-Class Mill Town 154
Participation and Investment in the 1990s 164
The Big Middle "Continuum" 177
Difficult Times Ahead: Putting Civic Culture to the Test 184
ch. 4 Social Change and Social Policy 187
Cultural and Structural Causes of Persistent Poverty 187
Class and Politics in Rural Communities 191
Equality, Democracy, and Social Change 198
Policies to Encourage Mobility and Build Civic Culture 200
Appendix 209
Notes 223
Acknowledgments 229
Index 231
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