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Rural living a challenge for low-income families.

Byline: Scott Maben The Register-Guard

Raising children in a rural area is a mixed bag for Stacy Harper, a single mother of five in Roseburg.

Good-paying jobs and affordable things for kids to do are in short supply, Harper said.

"Having kids and trying to survive these days is just horrible," she said. "Just trying to get their school clothes and get them enrolled in school is astonishing."

But the 33-year-old Wal-Mart worker has deep roots in this Douglas County community of 20,000. Her parents live here and help her out with the kids, ages 8 to 15. Plus, crime and living costs are lower than in larger cities, she said.

"I wouldn't want to raise my children anywhere else," Harper said.

Her experience is typical among low-income families, according to a report released today by Children First for Oregon.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit group found that parents in rural communities want to raise their children there, but struggle with a shortage of good jobs, safe and affordable child care, educational opportunities, access to health care and youth activities.

About 480,000 children live in rural counties in Oregon and Washington, and 45 percent of them are in low-income households, earning less than $36,800 a year for a family of four, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Based on interviews last year with focus groups in Roseburg, Siletz, Madras and Ontario, families said their top needs are predictable employment and wages that let them sufficiently support their families.

But they stay put because they want to raise their children in rural communities for reasons such as safety, beautiful surroundings and close-knit relationships with neighbors.

Assistance pays off

Harper, who took part in the survey, said she wouldn't be able to find a better opportunity than her job managing the shoe department at the Roseburg Wal-Mart store. She earns $10.46 an hour and works 35 to 40 hours a week.

"I really feel strongly that for a woman with no college degree, that's an astonishing wage for around here," she said. "I don't think I'm going to do better in a bigger city."

Harper was a McDonald's manager for three years and never earned more than $7 an hour, she said.

But she still relies on a host of social services and community support to get by. Umpqua Community Action Network subsidizes more than 60 percent of her $750 monthly rent.

"If I didn't receive my rental assistance, I don't know where we'd live," she said.

Harper also uses food stamps and gets additional help through UCAN paying her electricity bill. Her children are covered by the Oregon Health Plan, but she - a diabetic - has no insurance for herself.

"You kind of struggle from payday to payday," said Harper, who separated from her husband last year. "Entertainment is something you don't get a lot of. But I have strong family support. My family a lot of times buys my kids shoes."

Her parents also help watch after her children, sparing her the additional burden of paying for child care. But the report, "Listening to Learn: Stories from Rural Northwest Families," found that inadequate child care in rural areas is a significant problem for many families.

Census Bureau data show that 62 percent of rural Northwest moms with children under age 6 are working or looking for work.

Strengthening families

As costs rise and wages stagnate, affordability looms even larger as a barrier to safe, quality child care, the report said. In Oregon, 65 percent of families earning less than the state median income can't find affordable care, according to the 2002 Oregon Population Survey. "Affordable" is defined as spending no more than 10 percent of income on child care.

Today's report is intended to focus attention on the various challenges rural families face in raising healthy, successful children. The authors said they also want to arm policy-makers with better data on these problems and to encourage investments in smaller communities that will strengthen families.

The report recommends broad, long-range solutions, including:

State officials should tailor low-income family assistance programs to the realities of rural life. What works in the city may not work in the country.

Promote economic growth through small businesses and networks of small firms.

Improve subsidy programs, tax credits, referral networks, training and other incentives to expand the number of child care providers, including family, friend and neighbor care.

More support from businesses and foundations may be needed to develop after-school programs for older kids.

RURAL NEEDS

Parents in four rural Oregon communities say they lack:

Stable employment and family-wage jobs

Safe and affordable child care

Quality primary, secondary and higher education as well as continuing education and job training for adults

Activities for middle and high school students

Accessible and affordable health care

Better transportation options, such as public transit or services to help people reach medical appointments

To learn more: Visit www.childrenfirstfororegon.org. The report was produced by the Northwest Rural Communities Project, a collaboration between Children First for Oregon and Washington Kids Count.
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Title Annotation:Family; A new report says parents struggle with a shortage of good jobs, educational opportunities and affordable child care
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 22, 2004
Words:842
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