Small towns have long been idealized as good places to raise children. Research shows that agrarian small towns can work in ways that support successful child and youth development. High levels of trust emerge when everyone knows everyone else, making childrearing a community responsibility. Likewise, the small class sizes and abundant individual attention that characterize rural schools encourage intimate ties with both adults and peers. For families and children included in these social networks, the shared time and attention of adults are concentrated on the task of raising children. Young people with access to these supportive community structures are more resilient in overcoming serious family traumas. Yet for the poor, and even working poor, integration into the social fabric of a tightly-knit small town can be challenging

Poor Are Often Excluded

Ethnographic research provides evidence for how small town structural and social processes exclude poor and working poor families and children.

  • Without ties to the land, poorer families are routinely assigned a lower status in the local social hierarchy and are excluded from the community’s social resources.
  • Residential patterns that cluster poor families into open-country pockets, trailer parks, or rental apartments work to create rural neighborhoods that are marked as “the wrong side of the tracks.”
  • Poorer rural families living in these neighborhoods, along with those who have a “ne’er-do-well” reputation are socially stigmatized.
  • Deficient housing, unstable employment, and a bad family reputation further spur on patterns of residential mobility that exacerbate a family’s integration into community.
  • School districting policies that segregate poorer children to schools on the edge of town, pay-to-play sports, and limited transportation for after-school activities can have the unintended consequences of excluding poor and working poor children.

The ramifications of being left out of small town life intensify the effects of poverty and narrow opportunities by excluding poorer children and youth from the kind of social, educational, and cultural experiences that might otherwise support healthy, successful development.

Discrimination in Rural Schools

There is a misconception that schools, as an institution, work toward creating greater equality. In reality, rural schools often present a microcosm of the power relationships in the wider community. When rigid class boundaries exist within a community, discrimination, exclusion, and stigmatization based on social class and other differences can all persist and be reinforced in small town schools.

What Parents Can Do To Promote Inclusion

Watch your language. We often hear from school personnel that what is said at home carries over to school. Be careful with how you refer to specific neighborhoods and families and how you talk about poverty in general. Terms like “dirt poor,” “trailer trash,” and “broken homes” perpetuate negative stereotypes. Statements such as “well you know they are” only work to reinforce the ideas about an “us” and “them.”

Avoid assumptions.Vet your children’s friendships on an individual basis rather than working from assumptions. We hear too often about friendships ending when a sleep-over birthday party or a prom date pick-up revealed a trailer park address. Take time to get to know the families of your child’s friends. Model for your children the importance of working from actual knowledge rather than unfounded information.

Act as a community liaison. Through roles as a coach, Sunday school teacher, mentor, or fellow parent, individuals can work to integrate poor and working-poor families into place. Model empathy, not sympathy and remember: a community is only as good as the individual members who call it home.

Act collectively. When community members work to break down rigid class boundaries, more democratic processes prevail. Such processes are important if we are to get serious about supporting families and reducing the intergenerational persistence of poverty.

Together, community members can work to create scholarships that are easily and widely accessible, develop transportation plans that ensure access, and question policies and practices that work to exclude or limit access.

What Teachers Can Do To Promote Inclusion

Regulate language. Teachers should work to ensure that language used in the classroom reflects a commitment to and respect for diversity. Terms such as “white trash” that disparage the poor should be added to no tolerance policies already in place for minorities. Clothing with similarly offensive content should be banned as well. 

Mix it up. Encourage interaction and provide ample opportunities for children and their families to get to know each other across class boundaries.

Be direct.Don’t be afraid to engage in conversations with students about social class. We have too few opportunities to talk explicitly about the relative challenges and advantages that have more to do with the social class into which we are born than our individual talents and efforts.

What Schools and Communities Can Do To Promote Inclusion

Examine policies. Consider carefully whether and how school boundaries function to integrate or segregate the community’s poorer children and families. Planning and zoning policies often isolate lowest cost housing to certain sections of town. Policies should be monitored for the type of community they may create.

Create inclusive programs. The developmental value of participation in after-school sports and enrichment programs is clear. Yet struggles with transportation, pay-to-play fees, and the cost of extras like special clothing, equipment, or travel food can keep poor and working poor kids from participating. Local pecking orders can mean that while stigmatized children and youth can make the team, they may not have a chance to play. Ensure that scholarship programs are widely advertised, equitably offered, sufficient, and shame-free and find ways to allow everyone to play.

Outreach to families. Schools provide an ideal local institution through which to focus interventions. Specialized training can prepare teachers and staff to work more effectively with all kinds of families. Support for outreach approaches like home visits can provide the first steps for building home-school connection with hard to reach families. Social events that allow parents to interact can also provide additional opportunities.


1. Elder, G., & Conger, R. (2000). Children of the Land: Adversity and Success at Century's End. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

2. Salamon, S. (2003).

3. Fitchen, J. M. (1981). Poverty in rural America: A case study Boulder: Westview.

4. MacTavish, K., & Salamon, S. (2006). Pathways of youth development in a rural trailer park. Family Relations, 55, 175-189.

5. MacTavish, K. (2007). The wrong side of the tracks: Social inequality and

Katherine MacTavish is an Associate Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at Oregon State University. Her research focuses on child development and family well being in the context of rural communities. For the past decade, Dr. MacTavish has been examining how growing up in a rural trailer park shapes the eventual life chances of children and adolescents. Prior to completing her graduate training, Dr. MacTavish was a public school teacher and program administrator in rural New Mexico.

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