Poverty Rate Jumps in Rural America

The difference in poverty rates between rural and urban counties narrowed in the 1990s and through the first few years of this century. From 2003 to 2008, however, poverty rates in rural America jumped.

Share This:

The number of Americans living below the poverty line increased by more than 3.2 million between 2003 and 2008 — and a disproportionate number of those newly poor people live in rural America.

Newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 13.2% of Americans were living in poverty in 2008, the highest rate since 1997. In rural counties, however, that rate had climbed to 16.3%.

The increase in the number of poor Americans was heavily weighted in rural communities. Rural counties were home to just over 16% of the nation’s population in 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But 33% of the increase in the number of poor Americans from ’03 to ‘08 — more than one million people — was found in rural counties.

As a result, the gap between the poverty rates in urban and rural America widened, doubling between 2003 and 2008.

In 2003, 12.3% of urban Americans and 13.9% of rural Americans lived below the poverty line.

By 2008, the first full year of the current recession, the urban rate has risen to 12.7% and the rural rate had jumped to 16.3%. The gap between the rate of urban and rural poor was 1.6 percentage points in 2003. Just five years later, however, the difference had grown to 3.4 percentage points.

(A two-person household is considered poor if it had income of less than $14,051 in 2008; the threshold for a family of four was $22,025.)

Exurban counties fared better than either urban or rural communities. Exurban counties are in metropolitan areas, but still have large rural populations. In 2008, the poverty rate in exurban America was only 12.3%. In 2003, the exurban poverty rate was only 11.1%. (To see a map of rural, urban and exurban counties, go here.) 

The fortunes of rural counties varied wildly across the U.S., as the map above shows. (Click on map for larger version.) The map shows the poverty rates in the 2,577 rural and exurban counties. Only 345 of these communities (13%) saw decreases in their poverty rates from 2003 to 2008.

The rural counties with the lowest poverty rates (dark green on the map) are found mostly in the Mountain West — ski and resort counties like Teton (Jackson Hole) in Wyoming (4.4%), Routt (Steamboat Springs) in Colorado (4.7%) and Pitkin (Aspen) in Colorado (5%). Energy producing counties in Wyoming (such as Sublette, Sweetwater and Campbell) also had very low poverty rates.

The lowest poverty rate among rural counties was New Mexico’s Los Alamos County. Los Alamos is the smallest county in New Mexico (making it hard to spot on the smaller version of the map) and was once administered by the federal government. It is now an official New Mexico and county and is the home of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Poverty rates in exurban counties were considerably lower than in rural communities farther from urban centers. In the map above, you can see that the counties on the edges of many cities generally have poverty rates lower than the national average.

The 50 rural and exurban counties with the lowest poverty rates are listed below:


Poverty rates have been higher in rural counties than urban counties in every year since this measurement was first made in the 1960s. In the 1980s, the difference between rural and urban poverty rates was 4.4 percentage points.

In the 1990s, however, rural communities narrowed the gap as the economy grew nationally by 4 percent per year, a rate significantly higher than the previous two decades. By 2003, the difference in poverty rates between rural and urban counties had dwindled to 1.6 percentage points.

Five years later, however, the gap between rural and urban communities has widened to 3.6 percentage points as the economy weakened. 

(To download an excel chart showing the 2008 poverty rates for all U.S. counties with comparisons to 2003, click here. If you have trouble with that download, write us at [email protected])

The poor rural counties of decades ago are generally the poor counties today. The map above shows the distinct patterns of rural poverty in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, in South Texas and in counties dominated by Native American tribes. Ziebach County, South Dakota, had the nation’s highest poverty rate, 54.4% in 2008. That county lies entirely within Native American reservations.

Robeson County in North Carolina had the largest increase in the number of poor people among the country’s rural counties. From 2003 to 2008, the number of poor people in Robeson increased by more than 10,000. Isabella County, Mississippi, also recorded a large increase in the number of poor residents, up nearly 9,900 people since 2003.

The 50 rural and exurban counties with the highest poverty rates are listed below.


News Briefs