As Congress considers reauthorization of public assistance legislation in 2002, researchers are challenged to provide data about the economic well-being of rural, low-income families. This paper provides findings from three southern states (Kentucky, Louisiana, and Maryland) currently participating in a 15-state, longitudinal study monitoring the economic well-being of rural families in the context of welfare reform of cash and food assistance. Initial findings reveal that even families using assistance to supplement their earned income fall short of self-sufficiency. These families are at-risk of living in economic crisis, or critical hardship, with inadequate earned and unearned income to meet their basic needs. Findings demonstrate that rurality and locality matter, that families vary widely in their use of assistance,and that economic self-sufficiency is unlikely in the foreseeable. The sample of 83 low-income families from five rural counties in three southern states demonstrates the variability both within and across rural counties and a range of needs and resources. These findings support the need for customizing the implementation of public assistance legislation designed to increase economic self-sufficiency and the well-being of southern rural families.

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