Poor Rural Children: The Forgotten Fifth

Federal anti-poverty efforts began in rural America. But discussions of poverty in the U.S. now largely exclude rural communities — even though a fifth of all poor children are rural.

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Nobody has studied child poverty in rural America more than Bill O’Hare. He has now written a new report, The Forgotten Fifth: Child Poverty in Rural America, for the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire.

One out of five poor children in the United States lives in a rural area, O’Hare reports. (The full text can be found here. While you’re at it, check out other Carsey offerings here.) “Yet this group of vulnerable young Americans is seldom on the minds of the public or policy makers when they talk about child poverty in the United States,” O’Hare writes. “The image, rather, is overwhelmingly an urban one despite higher poverty rates in rural areas for decades.”

O’Hare reminds us that many of the nation’s major social reforms began with reports on rural poverty. Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty started with a visit to a cabin in Eastern Kentucky, for example. “In recent decades, however,” O’Hare writes, “rural poverty has been overshadowed by the plight of the ‘urban underclass,’ those impoverished families living in disadvantaged neighborhoods in large cities.”

As Congress was reviewing TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) in 2002, 1,400 newspaper articles were written on the subject. But not one dealt with welfare in rural communities, according to the Carsey report. “This lack of attention is particularly vexing given that many of the barriers to moving from welfare to work, such as lack of transportation and child care services, are higher in rural than urban areas,” O’Hare writes.

O’Hare’s report for Carsey is worth reading from cover to cover. What follows are excerpts from The Forgotten Fifth:

The child poverty rate—the percentage of children living in families with incomes below the official poverty line—is the most widely used indicator of child well-being. In 2007, the poverty threshold for a family of two adults and two children was $21,027 per year.  By that measure, 22 percent of those under age 18, or 2.6 million children, in rural America are poor, higher than the child poverty rate in urban areas. One in five poor children in the country lives in rural America. These are the forgotten fifth. 

In both urban and rural America, the risk of poverty is greater for children than for any other age group. In 2007, the child poverty rate in rural America was 22 percent, while it was 15 percent for the working-age population (aged 18 to 64) and 12 percent for the elderly (aged 65+). In urban America, 17 percent of children were in poverty, 11 percent of working-age adults were in poverty, and 10 percent of urban elderly were in poverty. 

William O’Hare
The gap between rural and urban child poverty has widened in recent years.

The relatively high poverty rate for children in rural America today is not new. In 1970, the poverty rate was 12 percent for urban children and 20 percent for children in rural areas. Although the gap between rural and urban child poverty narrowed in the 1970s and 1980s, it has widened from 3 percentage points in 1990 to 5 percentage points in 2007. The rise of child poverty in rural America is consistent with the growing income gap between urban and rural families….Poverty rates in rural areas are highest in counties that are the most remote and lowest in counties that are in or adjacent to metropolitan areas. 

The rural child poverty rates in states range from a low of 8 percent in Connecticut to a high of 35 percent in Mississippi (Savage 2008). In thirteen states, more than one-fourth of rural children are poor. 

The 2007 county-level child poverty estimates from the Census Bureau provide a stark picture of child poverty in rural America; the estimates show that of the fifty-one counties (several counties were tied) with the highest child poverty rates, fifty are located in rural America. Similar results from Census 2000 prompted prominent child advocate Marian Wright Edelman to argue that “Americans tend to picture poor children living in big cities. But there are 38 counties with child poverty rates higher than in the poorest big cities, virtually all of them rural counties”

William O’Hare
The counties with the highest child poverty rates are almost exclusively rural.

The poorest families benefited the least from the economic boom in the late 1990s, and the major reform of the welfare system in the late 1990s may have exacerbated their plight.

The rural poor tend to be poor for longer spells than their urban counterparts. The median length of poverty in rural areas is 15 percent longer than in urban areas. Nine percent of rural people who became poor at some point between 1996 and 1999 were still poor twenty-four months later, compared with only 7 percent of people in urban areas. 

A significant difference between rural and urban poor children is that rural poor children are more likely to be white. More than one-half (57 percent) of all poor rural children are non-Hispanic white compared with about one-fourth (28 percent) of poor urban children (see Table 4). On the other hand, black children make up only 21 percent of the poor children in rural America compared with 30 percent in urban America, and Hispanic children make up only 15 percent of poor rural children compared with 35 percent of poor urban children. 

William O’Hare
Portions of the country have had persistently high child poverty rates for generations.

Rural families experienced welfare reform differently than urban families, in part because of the different characteristics of the population and communities and in part because of state choices. In rural areas, particularly those where potential employers are few and far between, child care and transportation costs are serious impediments to single mothers entering or reentering the labor force. For example, in 2007, 1.3 million rural households (7 percent of all rural households) had no vehicle available, and virtually everyone in rural areas lacks easy access to public transportation.



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