Posted by Karen Walker, Self-Sufficiency Research Clearinghouse Staff
Rural population in the United States has declined dramatically over the last 100 years. In 2015, 86 percent of Americans lived in metropolitan areas, which include both cities with over 50,000 people and “metropolitan clusters” that have 2,500 to 50,000 residents. However, over 46 million Americans live in non-metropolitan—that is, rural—areas.
Rural poverty is widespread in the USA with higher proportions of rural residents than urban residents being poor. Rural poverty tends to cluster in southern states and on tribal lands across the United States. Between 2010-2014, almost 22 percent of all people who lived in rural southern areas were poor. Further, the South contains 85 percent of the persistently poor counties in the US, meaning those counties that have had poverty rates of 20 percent or more for more than thirty years. And Southern states contain a disproportionate share of the US rural population (42 percent) compared with rural areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and western US.
While higher poverty rates exist for people of all races and ethnicities living in rural areas, poverty rates between urban and rural residents vary by race. For example, in 2014 white poverty was about 12 percent in metropolitan areas and 15 percent in rural areas. In contrast, African American poverty was about 26 percent in metropolitan areas and 37 percent in rural areas. This pattern was similar for American Indians: about 25 percent of those living in cities were poor compared with 33 percent of the rural population. Further, poverty rates for minority populations were higher in 2014 than they were in 2003. And, despite a large increase in real incomes across the United States in 2015 compared with 2014, incomes for people in non-metropolitan areas did not demonstrate a statistically significant change. For many in rural communities, poverty is pervasive and persistent.
For children, poverty in rural areas is a significant problem. Rural child poverty is especially pronounced for minority children. More than half of all rural African American children and 40 percent of American Indian children live in poverty. The consequences of growing up poor include poorer health and a higher probability of continued poverty into adulthood compared with children who grow up in wealthier households. To break this intergenerational cycle of poverty, sustained and intentional efforts are needed.
Poverty, whether urban or rural, has multiple causes, including a mismatch between educational qualifications and skills and available jobs, few job opportunities (a particular problem in rural areas, even in good economic times), and accessible services top the list. Difficulties finding reliable transportation and high quality child care available during the hours that parents work present acute challenges in rural areas. Current rural poverty has been exacerbated by the recession that occurred between 2007-2010, which resulted in greater income losses to rural families and a relatively limited recovery. Historical events have had a lasting impact on rural poverty, such as long-standing discriminatory practices toward minorities and policies restricting American Indians to relatively non-productive lands.
In addition, rural geography presents challenges to ameliorating poverty. The dispersion of the population over large areas and the relative paucity of public transportation pose significant challenges to educational, employment, health care, and child care solutions that may work in urban areas. Rural residents rely heavily on private cars to meet transportation needs. Small studies indicate that poor rural residents often depend on unreliable modes of transportation or car pooling with friends and family for getting to work. Subsidized child care may not be available in rural areas. Skilled health care providers are in short supply in rural areas, meaning that some of America’s poorest residents, who suffer more from both poor mental and physical health than their middle-class counterparts, cannot get the health services they need. In addition, a lack of consistent data makes it difficult to establish a basic understanding of the prevalence of problems related to poverty, the availability and use of services, as well as the effectiveness of services all of which impact funding allocations to rural communities.
Efforts to ameliorate rural poverty have not been as successful as originally hoped, but they have generated knowledge and useful lessons for future efforts. In a 2006 report, researchers suggested that, in addition to employment-readiness activities, economic development initiatives such as wage subsidies, tax credits, low interest employer loans, community improvement projects, etc. may also improve the number and quality of jobs in rural communities. Similarly, the challenges of transportation and child care in rural areas likely require systemic efforts to increase their supply, reliability, and quality. Improvement efforts would require significant investments—not only to fortify existing services—but also strengthen the leadership capacity of rural communities to better align resources and spur regional improvements.
Delivering services to rural populations to help them transition from poverty to economic opportunity is challenging but not impossible. Many of the barriers to self-sufficiency in rural areas are systemic, pervasive, and persistent. However, strong leadership, committed sustainable cross-sector partnerships, investments in professional development of staff, and attention to data collection and overall effectiveness will help to better prepare rural Americans for the future.
The SSRC library contains numerous resources and evaluations related to rural poverty, including:
- Assessing community capacity in rural America: Some lessons from two rural observations
- Paths to work in rural places: Key findings and lessons from the impact evaluation of the Future Steps Rural Welfare-to-Work program
- Place matters: Addressing rural poverty
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