On a visit to Beijing in 2015 I met the Chinese Vice-Minister for Rural Development. A jovial man, who looked back fondly on the two years he had spent living in Cardiff, he seemed unperturbed by his charge of lifting 36 million Chinese rural residents out of extreme poverty. In comparison, the challenge of addressing rural poverty in Wales may seem insignificant, but as the PPIW’s report reveals, the problem is real and answers are no less difficult to deliver.
Indeed, the problem of rural poverty in Wales is compounded by its relative invisibility. Poverty in rural areas is less geographically concentrated than in urban areas and as such is less obvious in statistics collected at district or ward level. Moreover, the iconography of poverty in Wales is dominated by images of deindustrialised landscapes and urban blight, whilst life in the countryside is perceived as comfortable and untroubled. Accordingly, research by the Wales Rural Observatory (WRO) found that a majority of rural residents surveyed in Wales denied that poverty was present in their local area, or believed that material poverty was compensated for by the quality of the natural environment.
However, the perception of a prosperous countryside is relatively recent. In the mid 20th century, the social and economic deprivation of rural Wales was acknowledged and tackled by government intervention, including improvements to housing, infrastructure and services, and industrialization create better-paid jobs. Equally importantly, wealth levels in rural Wales were raised by importing a more affluent population, as the region attracted in-migration by middle class ex-urbanites. Yet, whilst the in-migrants had a positive impact on paper, they often exacerbated the situation of low income residents, with inflated house prices, for example, making access to housing more difficult and contributing to rising rural homelessness.
The housing system is just one example of how the dynamics of rural poverty can be different to those of urban poverty, with the PPIW report also emphasizing in-work poverty, low quality of employment opportunities, poor access to services and experiences of isolation. These disadvantages are often inter-connected and mutually-reinforcing. Take transport, for instance. Low income households dependent on threadbare rural bus services are severely limited in their employment options and restricted in their ability to access training, public services, and shopping centres. They may be dependent on village shops and services with higher prices, or forced to run a car that eats heavily into their weekly income – described in the report as the ‘rural poverty premium’, whereby the poorest in society pay more for essential goods and services.
The rural poverty premium also compounds the precarious position of low income residents in relation to economic trends such as the post-2008 recession, or to policy changes. Surveys of rural residents by the Wales Rural Observatory found that the proportion of respondents stating that they found it difficult to live on their present income increased from 13% to 18% between 2007 and 2013; whilst the proportion claiming benefits of any kind increased from 46% to 69% over the same period. Similarly, WRO research has revealed how the rationalisation of public services such as healthcare in rural areas has contributed to more rural residents reporting difficulties with access, especially in ‘deep rural’ localities.
The evidence therefore points to an under-current of persistent, and arguably growing, rural poverty in Wales, but developing effective policy responses is obstructed by two factors. Firstly, the geographical dispersal of rural poverty tends to render area-based initiatives ineffective. Addressing rural poverty requires a more sophisticated, targeted strategy, yet therein lies the second problem – we just don’t know enough about which households in rural areas are in poverty, where they are, and the precise mix of factors that underscore their disadvantage. Recognising rural poverty is a first step, but systematically enhancing our understanding of the problem and formulating integrated policy responses that cross-cut government departments are needed to move forward.