The Hidden Poverty of Rural Ontario

Colleen Purdon, Marsha McLean

Colleen Purdon is a researcher and community activist working on a multi-year project to address poverty for rural women and their families in grey, Bruce, Huron, and Perth counties. Marsha Mclean teaches at two elementary schools in Owen Sound and sees about 200 children every week. In this article, they reflect on the challenges facing women living in poverty in rural areas and the impact poverty has on their children. 

Colleen Purdon: In 2007 the Rural Women Take Action on Poverty Committee conducted a Report Card on Rural Women and Poverty in Grey, Bruce, Huron and Perth counties. Over 170 people took part in surveys and focus groups to provide information for the report card. The voices of children were not included in our data collection and we didn’t consult with schools directly.
We collected information on four community benchmarks:

  • Basic needs for food, housing, health and safety are met.
  • Women are treated with respect and dignity.
  • Women have access to training, education, information, and supports.
  • Women and men have equal opportunities and status.

Meeting Basic Needs

CP: Over two-thirds of survey participants said their ability to meet basic needs for food and housing was poor or fair. That’s a failing grade on the basic needs benchmark. Half reported their ability to meet school expenses was poor– another failing grade.

Marsha McLean: Children show the impact of poverty in many different ways – they may be tired, or sad, or angry. Their lunches have no fresh fruit or veggies; they bring food that’s not nutritious, but is cheap. Children come with inadequate winter clothing, or no winter boots. There are families that can’t pay for field trips.

You can also see it in their faces. You can see the concern, the sadness, and the worry. Sometimes when kids haven’t eaten they act out. Their blood sugar levels go down, they can’t concentrate, and then they lose it in the classroom. Other kids lose their focus, don’t co-operate, or they are just “gone” and can’t be reached. We want to believe that our children’s basic needs are being met, so we don’t always make the connection between the struggles of children and poverty. And people do their best not to show their need so it’s not always easy to know which families are struggling.


CP: It’s not just in schools that this issue is invisible. Report card respondents said that we underestimate the amount of poverty in the area and the serious impact it has on the health and welfare of people and communities.


teacher standing in front of workshop projects

Can you imagine? An upset student discloses that, after years of sexual abuse, her father has impregnated her? A student is withdrawn and anxious and his grades drop. Discussions reveal his mother is regularly beaten. Would you know how to help these students?

etfo members listening intently to someone out of frame

Representative Council brings together local leaders three times a year. In  October First Vice-President Susan Swackhammer chaired the first meeting of 2009-10.