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Additional myths about the rural poor

We wrote earlier in this space regarding myths about the rural poor that we’ve experienced in our work at Hirons. If you’re concerned about reaching out to the rural poor, take these thoughts into account in planning and executing your work.

There’s greater poverty in the cities than in rural areas.

Actually, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s data estimates, there has been a higher incidence of rural (the Census Bureau calls it “nonmetro”) poverty relative to urban (“metro”) poverty since the 1960s. In fact, levels of rural poverty were often double those in urban areas throughout the 1950s and 1960s. However, the gap between rural and urban poverty rates has narrowed over time, falling from an average difference of 4.5 percentage points in the 1980s to a gap of about 3 percentage points in the period 2010-2016. In 2015, 16.7% of the rural population was poor, compared with 13% of the urban population.

But, the rate of children living in poverty is higher in the cities than in rural areas, right?

About one in four (23.5 percent) rural children in the United States were poor in 2016, compared to about one in five (20.5 percent) urban children. At the county level, on average between 2012 and 2016, there were 41 counties in the United States with child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher, 38 of which were rural (nonmetro) counties heavily clustered in the South (31 of these counties).

The rural counties with the highest child poverty rates were Mellette County, South Dakota (70.9 percent), Issaquena County, Mississippi (68.7 percent), and East Carroll Parish, Louisiana (68.4 percent). Thirteen of the rural counties with child poverty rates of 50 percent or higher were in Mississippi—mainly along the Mississippi Delta region—where child poverty rates have always been high, particularly among the Black or African American child population.

Worldwide,  the U.S. doesn’t compare favorably with other countries with advanced economies regarding childhood poverty overall—out of 175 nations, a 2018 report says the U.S. ranks 36th, far behind Singapore, Slovenia, Norway, Sweden and Finland and just ahead of Russia, Kuwait and Bosnia.

Poverty in America is widespread and evenly distributed throughout the country.

In the United States, people living in poverty tend to be clustered in certain regions, counties, and neighborhoods rather than being spread evenly across the country. What makes this especially problematic is that research has shown that the poor living in areas where poverty is prevalent face impediments beyond those of their individual circumstances. In other words, concentrated poverty contributes to poor housing and health conditions, higher crime and school dropout rates, as well as employment disruptions. So, economic conditions in very poor areas often create limited opportunities for poor residents that become self-perpetuating.

While the overall rate of poverty is higher in rural counties than in urban, the difference between rural/urban poverty rates varies significantly across regions. The rural/urban poverty rate gap for the South has historically been the largest. In 2012-16, the South had a rural poverty rate of 21.3 percent—nearly 6 percentage points higher than in the region’s urban areas. The difference in poverty rates in the South is particularly important for the overall rural poverty rate because an estimated 42.6 percent of the rural population and 51.1 percent of the rural poor lived in this region in 2012-16. Regional poverty rates for rural and urban areas were most alike in the Midwest and the Northeast in 2012-16.

Rural counties with a high incidence of poverty are mainly concentrated in the South. Those with the most severe poverty are found in historically poor areas of the Southeast, including the Mississippi Delta and Appalachia, as well as on Native American lands. Pockets of high poverty are increasingly found in other regions, such as rural areas of the Southwest and northern sections of the Midwest. The incidence of poverty is relatively low elsewhere, but in general, higher rates of poverty are found in the Midwest, Southwest, Pacific, and Northeast than in the past.

How is “rural” defined?

Where does rural America begin and end? There really is no simple answer, as even the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the Federal agency with primary responsibility for rural America) has multiple definitions of which places are rural and which are not, and USDA’s definitions differ from that of other government agencies like the Census Bureau. The fact is these agencies define “rural” for their purposes in issuing grants, for example, which may or may not be relevant to how we view “rural.”

The bottom line is that “rural” is an inexact term that means different things to different people, organizations and governments. It’s probably sufficient to know for our purposes that a multitude of “rural” definitions exists. The number of rural counties fluctuates over time, and discrepancies with old designations continually exist.

It shouldn’t be surprising that these multiple definitions of “rural” often creates confusion. You may hear different numbers for the same rural statistic and wonder which one is correct, not realizing that they are both correct, but based on different definitions.

There are three federal government agencies whose definitions of what is rural are in widest use: the U.S. Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget and the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Generally, there is not one definition that fits all needs or programs.

They’re poor because they don’t want to work.

Contrary to common assumptions, substantial shares of the poor are employed. Approximately 45% of poor, prime-age (25-54) householders worked at least part of 2015 in rural and urban areas alike. However, the link between work and poverty was different in the past. In the early 1980s, the share of the rural poor that was employed exceeded that in urban areas by more than 15%. Since then, more and poorer people in rural areas are also unemployed.

Hirons can help you better understand rural audiences and improve your outreach to them. Give us a call at 317.977.2206.

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