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Hardscrabble Childhood: Growing up Poor in Rural New York

This is an excerpt from “Hardscrabble Childhood, Growing up Poor in Rural New York”.

The original 30 minute show was commissioned by New York State Department of Social Services to  introduce service professionals to the world as  kids saw it, so these professionals could better serve them.

Only kids are seen and heard in the film – the presence of the adults is felt but not shown.  We used only the first names of the kids, and did not identify the places they lived.   With the children from these families providing all of the narration, acting as tour guides, the resulting 30-minute video documented isolated, abject poverty –unsafe and unsanitary conditions for any child.  Especially disturbing was the detached way in which they compared their lives with those of others – their awareness and acceptance of their circumstances.  In one scene, a child pulled out a couch from under a leaking ceiling/roof to reveal exposed wires.  Another family of children is shown fetching water by pickup truck, filling up old, plastic milk jugs from an outdoor spigot, for a home without running water.  Two children led the camera to a place in the woods where they hid from social workers in fear of foster care placement.   The film reflected a very real national trend in rural life for many New York families, that continues to this day.  The Rural Assistance Center, citing 2007 USDA statistics and other sources, states:

“According to the Economic Research Service, the average per-capita income for all New York residents in 2006 was $44,027, although rural per-capita income lagged at $28,526. Estimates from 2007 indicate a poverty rate of 14.0% exists in rural New York, compared to 13.8% in urban areas of the state. Regarding education levels, 2000 data reports 20.0% of the rural population has not completed high school, while 21.0% of the urban population lacks a high school diploma. The unemployment rate in rural New York is 5%, and in urban New York it is 4.5%.” (

Hardscrabble Childhood has since been shown to various New York audiences over the past two decades.  Copies found their way to the New York State Extension Service for use during public presentations on rural living.  It was also used by Cornell University’s Family Life Development Center within undergraduate college coursework.  As Insights International became aware of the film’s  following, they were contacted by one of the original families, and were invited to a birthday party for a child of one of the children profiled in the original video, who is now in her thirties.  After two visits with this family, Insights International became interested in developing a follow-up media project to Hardscrabble Childhood.

Insights was formed in 1980. We became Insights International, Inc. in 1990.