Rural America is struggling. My hometown of Cortland, New York once boasted numerous factories—Brockway, Smith Corona, and Rubbermaid—which have all left. The Marietta Corporation and SUNY Cortland are the area's major remaining employers. When I visit my family for a weekend I inevitably run into the odd urban traveler stopping by for a few days. They remark on the "simplicity" and "honesty" of rural life. It would be the perfect place to raise children, they say. I return a taut smile. I can't explain the fetishization of rural people and their lives to these strangers, and why their words sound so condescending. But I really want to.
If these well-meaning tourists fail to notice the challenges of living in a small town with high unemployment rates and few safety nets for the poor, social critics ignore rural America entirely. At Slate, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and other prestigious outlets, the commentary about women revolves around the supposed new brand of Superwomen: highly educated, upper to middle class, and ambivalent about marriage and babies.
Rural women face a different set of challenges than these Superwomen. It's less likely rural women's mothers received an education beyond high school. There's a smaller chance their mothers received a master's degree. Often, their schools don't offer the same educational value as schools in suburban areas, making their college applications less palatable to good state schools, much less Ivy League schools. The models of success aren't there, and if they are, the pathways to success are limited, and require that they leave the region.
So rural women focus on where they can achieve, and often the only avenue of achievement open to them is in raising children and getting married.
Rural women are more likely to have sex and marry earlier than urban women, according to a 2013 Brigham Young University study, "Marital Paradigms: A Conceptual Framework for Marital Attitudes, Values and Beliefs." Why is this? The less educated you are, the more likely you are to marry young. Fifty-three percent of women with a high school diploma married by 25 years old compared with 37 percent of women with bachelor's degrees, according to a 2006-2010 CDC survey. Rural women are less likely to have earned a bachelor's degree or master's degree compared to urban women, at 22.5 percent versus 28.9 percent respectively, according to 2011 U.S. Health and Human Services statistics, priming them for early marriages.
According to a 2010 study "Early marriage in the U.S. Why Some Marry Young, Why Many Don't and What Difference It Makes," early marriage occurs most frequently among young adults with low educational trajectories, who come from families with more limited resources. These young adults typically come from rural communities and the Southern U.S.
These issues are familiar to Cortland. The New York State Department of Health's County Health Assessment Indicators shows Cortland's teen pregnancy rate is 27.3 per 1,000 lower than the state's 53.5 per 1,000. The percentage of births within 24 months of a previous pregnancy, however, is five percentage points higher than the state overall. Single women with children under five years old had the highest rate of poverty in Cortland County, at 78.7 percent, according to the 2009-2011 American Community Survey.
Gail Bundy works for the Cortland County Community Action Program, which assists low-income people in the county. She said the poverty in Upstate New York is exacerbating the problems young women with children already face.
"What makes life hard for rural women and young families in rural America is the stress of poverty, which is directly related to the loss of high-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits, increase in employers using temp and seasonal labor, and the costs of reliable transportation and health care," Bundy said.
At CAPCO, Bundy helps women manage a budget and navigate workplace rules. The women she counsels often bear sole responsibility for the household finances, but haven't learned the basics of budgeting.
"Overall, the women end up with lots of responsibility managing the family and have a stronger role in managing the money. Their children's needs come before their own education," Bundy said. "They have to figure out how to manage households, keep their children fed, clothed, and educated with very limited resources. We help them develop those skills."
Bundy said she is trying to encourage women to pursue some kind of long-term goal, educational or not, that will set a good example for their children. Often the women Bundy meets pursue traditionally feminine jobs such as nursing or daycare work, but Bundy is trying to encourage women to train for work that provides a living wage, such as an electrician, who might make $17 to $18 an hour.
Beth Reed, 26, grew up in Homer, New York, three miles from Cortland, and pursued a teaching career. She married at 25 and gave birth to a baby boy, Zeke, at 26. She is taking a break from substitute teaching at Homer Central High School to take care of her son but intends to go back to work soon out of financial necessity. In her experience talking to high school-age women, she has found many of them are forgoing a college education and having children young, often before marriage.
"I do find a majority of high school females taking their high school diploma and not pursuing a college degree. I don't necessarily see them getting married young but I do see them starting families. In my opinion, that is a small-town mentality," Reed said.