Rural Poverty and Social Change

Georg Wiesinger, Federal Institute for Mountainous and Less-favoured Areas, Vienna

Although poverty is a growing international concern, there is still no consistent and commonly accepted definition of it. The term poverty encompasses different spatial, temporal and socioeconomic scopes. Consequently, we can perceive different approaches to defining the circumstances in which somebody is to be considered as poor. Different categories of poverty, such as absolute, relative, old, new, temporary, permanent, material, spiritual, social, cultural, visible, hidden, current and potential poverty, can be discerned. Furthermore, the emphasis can be put on personal (or household) income or expenses. Others argue that people's access to public goods, facilities and assets, or even the standard of equipment of their households, may play a crucial role in defining poverty. Poverty may be restricted to a short period of time or may emerge in specific situations (e.g. unemployment, periods of education and training, personal misfortune). There are poor people who are eligible for social aid schemes but do not apply for support, while others who are much better off complain about their situation. As there are numerous reasons for poverty, poverty can also trigger a number of different consequences and socio-dynamic processes.
The question arises whether there is any fundamental difference between rural and urban poverty. It is frequently argued that rural poverty refers to a spatial unit rather than to the affliction of certain social groups or to specific circumstances of life. After all, there is women's and children's poverty, poverty due to unemployment, etc., in rural as well as in urban areas. Should investigations therefore focus on marginalised social groups or on the main causes for social exclusion rather than on spatial categories? There is much truth in this argumentation but we can also notice that the different socio-economic environment in rural as compared to urban areas can play a decisive role. Some poverty-causing features can only be found in rural areas, and others are of particular importance in those areas.

Hence the Federal Institute for Mountainous and Less-favoured Areas conducted a comprehensive survey on rural poverty in order to get a better understanding of its specific causes and impacts. Poverty is a highly sensitive subject. Admitting to poverty can be very unpleasant and can entail social exclusion. This is why many of the poor live secluded and why, in many cases, other people do not even know about their difficulties. Many of them feel reluctant to talk about their own situation even when it is known. Besides, poor people tend to give non-valid information or to hide and deny their problems. This is why direct interviews would certainly yield insufficient results; a more sophisticated instrument of survey therefore had to be developed. The emphasis was put on interviews (individual interviews, round-table discussions) with people living and working in rural areas who are not personally afflicted but who do have an excellent understanding of the specific problems and effects of rural poverty. The group of respondents was comprised of social workers, local politicians, teachers, priests, members of charitable institutions, etc. In addition, local workshops and events were organised to promote a better understanding of the situation of the poor amongst the rural population, with the intention of fostering social inclusion.

According to the findings of the survey, the most important reasons for rural poverty appeared to be insufficient individual mobility, long-term unemployment, poor labour market conditions, low income levels, a lack of cheap housing, deficiencies in certain old-age pension schemes, a lack of educational and care institutions, a lack of equal opportunities for women in many respects, weak infrastructure and, last but not least, the threat of stigmatization because of the lack of anonymity in rural social systems.

Rural poverty is not the same as agricultural poverty, but there is specific agricultural poverty as well. According to the official statistical data, more than 30 percent of agricultural households in Austria are afflicted or threatened by poverty. This is a rather high percentage compared with other European countries. The main cause seems to be the predominance of small and medium-sized agricultural holdings in Austria. The most important reasons for agricultural poverty turn out to be heavy indebtedness, deficiencies in the old-age pension system (particularly for farm women), and finally, the unequal distribution of direct payments and agricultural subsidies.

Combating rural poverty and social exclusion requires a basic understanding of its specific structural causes and impacts in addition to implementing appropriate measures. This would be an essential step away from stigmatization and towards sustainable social inclusion of poor and marginalised social groups. This will be a big challenge for all members of so-called "civil society", including local authorities, NGOs and different types of associations.

Wiesinger, G.: Die vielen Gesichter der ländlichen Armut. Eine Situationsanalyse zur ländlichen Armut in Österreich. Bundesanstalt für Bergbauernfragen, Forschungsbericht Nr. 46, Wien 2000