The abandoned shells of buildings along the main drag here serve as a glum backdrop for the youngsters who sit in front of them for hours, idly chatting and staring into the occasional passing car. A liquor store and convenience store are the only places to shop. The little work available is seasonal or at casinos 25 miles away.

Poverty, like an annoying out-of-town cousin, has settled into this Mississippi Delta town for an extended stay. Fifty-five percent of households in this community of 350 take in less than $15,000 a year, well below the federal poverty line of $18,850 for a family of four. The last of the town's shacks, which lacked toilets and insulation, were retired only in the last decade, after Habitat for Humanity made destroying them a priority.

Leroy Bush has lived here all his life, picking cotton and working odd jobs to make ends meet. A decade ago, he became a homeowner in exchange for 500 hours' worth of "sweat equity" and a promise to pay $100 a month on an interest-free mortgage that covers the cost of the land, insurance and materials. The labor was free.

"Everybody here is just trying to make it," said Bush, 55, who works with his wife, Clarethea, at a nearby casino. "We do the best we can."

The human faces of poverty for many Americans are the inner-city homeless who sleep on grates, beg on corners and line up, mornings and afternoons, at local parks for a cup of soup and a sandwich. But of the 50 counties with the highest child-poverty rates, 48 are in rural America. Compared with urban areas, unemployment is typically higher, education poorer and services severely limited because people are so spread out.

A report, "Child Poverty in Rural America," prepared this year by Loyola University of Chicago and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that the gap between child poverty in rural and urban areas has widened in recent years. One in five children in rural America lives below the poverty line. By contrast, the child-poverty rate in metropolitan areas is 16 percent. Just a few years ago, the rates were nearly the same.

"In rural areas, the poverty is white, Hispanic, black and American Indian," said Kenneth M. Johnson, a professor at Loyola, who co-authored the report. "Unlike urban poverty, the rural poor are not always right where you're going to see them."

No corner of the nation is untouched: Texas border towns, farming communities in Montana, fishing and logging enclaves in Maine and the mountains of Appalachia -- and in places such as Coahoma, in the heart of what is known as the southern Black Belt, a crescent of counties from Virginia to Texas in which blacks far outnumber whites.

"Rural poverty is an area that too many people don't recognize as a problem," said Robert Forney, president and chief executive officer of America's Second Harvest, the nation's largest hunger-relief organization. "A lot of people believe it's got to be cheap to live there and food has got to be more available. But cheap is relative to income. Your ability to move yourself around is limited. There is no public transportation.

"The question becomes, 'How do you get help?' ''

Second Harvest started putting food directly into children's hands, with weekend "book bag" programs in which food is sent home with a child every weekend. The Mississippi Food Network, a food bank for the state, sends trucks out from its headquarters in Jackson, Miss., to drop off food closer to the people who need it.

Other organizations seek both to provide for emergency food needs and to prepare residents for a future in which they can become self-sufficient.

One of them is the Louisiana Center Against Poverty, in Lake Providence, La., which offers self-esteem programs for children, job training for their parents and computer skills classes for all ages.

But new graduates face grim job prospects, said Carolyn Hunt, the agency's executive director. Lake Providence is historically one of the poorest places in the nation, ranked as the poorest community in the 1990 Census.

Just as in Coahoma, before machines made manual harvesting nearly extinct in Lake Providence, there was full employment for everyone, including small children, who often skipped school to pick cotton and vegetables. The wages, while meager, ensured that families could support themselves year-round. But with few field jobs and no factories, when the poverty center opens its doors to dole out brown-paper sacks filled with potatoes, cheese, peppers and powdered milk, young and old line up for their share.

"A lot of people run out of groceries and don't have money to buy more," said Ethel Emerson, 70, who collected a free bag of food on a recent morning along with hundreds of neighbors. "This gives them a way to keep going."

Hunt, a Lake Providence native, worked in larger cities, including Miami and Baton Rouge, La. She was often judgmental when she came home to visit. "I used to say, 'What's wrong with these people -- why can't they do better?' " Hunt said.

Now, after returning home to attend graduate school, she said she realizes there just are not enough jobs. So she spends a good portion of her time lobbying legislators in Baton Rouge for tax incentives to lure businesses.

"Just one factory or plant could make a huge difference," she said.

Back in Mississippi, Jane Boykin, president of the Jackson-based Forum on Children and Families, lobbies on poverty and child welfare before the state legislature. No matter how successful she is, the work is never done. Mississippi is at or near the top in all the wrong categories: births to single teens, low-birth-weight babies, illiteracy.

"Poverty is not just an economic indicator here," Boykin said. "It's a part of our economy. There are a large group of people for whom poverty provides employment" as they dole out food at shelters and work for organizations that help the poor.

Coahoma is one of those vexing places where poverty is entrenched. In the center of cotton country, the town lies 60 miles south of Memphis in the flat alluvial flood plain of the Mississippi Delta. Trains filled with cotton and passengers once made this an active trading center, but mechanization changed things drastically by the 1940s, effectively ending sharecropping and leaving a community bereft of jobs.

So as many southerners had before them, Coahoma residents fled the Delta for jobs in the North. The town continued to decline, reaching a low point in 1977 when its school closed for good. It would be nearly another decade before things began to look up.

Coahoma Mayor W.J. Jones can talk at length about what the town needs: jobs, money, a tax base. But as he travels the community, visiting with residents, he remains optimistic. There had not been a new house in town in two decades before Habitat for Humanity showed up. Now, some young people are returning, slowly investing in homes and property.

"The problems are so great sometimes that you feel you're not making a dent," said Jones, a former principal, who has presided over this town since 1982. "But I'm optimistic. We want to improve the quality of life for those who come after us. I know it might be some years."

Ethel Emerson, 70, rests after picking up a free bag of groceries at the Louisiana Center Against Poverty in Lake Providence, La.